I believe in resilience, in the power of a person to sink to the depths and rise again. Resilience is like the palm tree that bends to the ground in a hurricane and survives to bear fruit the following season. To me, resilience is the defining quality that determines failure or success in a life.
I work in a maximum security prison for the mentally ill. Every day, I encounter men who have lost everything, the businessman who slept with his fouteen year old stepdaughter. He lost his wife, his young children, his job, his house, his will to live. Then there’s the bipolar twenty year old who had his first manic episode and tried to rob a bank because he thought it was funny. He’s never been locked up before and is scared beyond words. He thinks he will die or be killed in prison so he becomes acutely suicidal. Then there’s the thirty year old felon who tried to kill himself with a rifle and then was arrested for possession of a deadly firearm. They come to me broken and suicidal. My job is to help them find a reason to live again.
It isn’t easy but it is miraculous. The key is connection. I’m not saying it works every time, but once a person has made genuine contact with another human being, something happens. A spark. Someone has taken their pain seriously so they begin to take their pain seriously themselves. They begin to take their lives seriously. They come to the point of saying, if not, I matter, at least, my children matters or life matters or God matters or the mystery matters.
At the end of my favorite movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, Clarence the Angel gives George Bailey a book inscribed with the words “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.” I never used to like that part. I used to think it should say “No man is a failure who doesn’t quit.” Many of the men I see come to me friendless and alone. And yet they don’t quit. Many of them want to. Many of them want to “hang it up” and die but they hang on to the precious sliver called life.
I guess my job as a social worker is to be a friend of sorts. But it’s more complicated than that. In prison, I don’t have the liberty to do what regular friends do – I can’t bring them food or go on walks or talk about my personal life. But it’s that miraculous connection that’s made that makes the difference. So maybe Clarence was right after all. “No man is a failure who has friends.” We can rise above anything if there is one, only one person who believes in us and believes our life matters. Then we can be resilient and rise above anything.
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