Toward Resilient Arab Societies

I was invited more than 10 years ago by an association of psychologists in Montreal (Quebec- Canada) to testify about my experience as a war survivor. The main theme was ‘Resilience’ and my hosts and colleagues defined it as having a positive attitude, optimism, and the ability to change one’s life even after a misfortune. I really thought I, like many other Lebanese, was blessed with such an outlook, i.e. finding a way to rise from the ashes, being knocked down by life and coming back stronger. That was and still is my fuel to carry on my studies while living in Canada, to go through the Summer 2006 combats with Israel, to conduct my researches on sensitive and taboo issues, to teach university students in Montreal and Beirut about religions, politics, interreligious/intercultural dialogue, war memory and peace, to pursue my offline and online activism for human rights/women’s rights…

I was taught to bounce back when something goes wrong, even if it takes time, energy, sacrifices. I was taught – and still trying to teach myself every day – to harness inner strength helping me rebound from a setback or a challenge, such as illness, misogyny and sexism, racism, death of loved ones, family crisis, emigration, political turmoil, and war…

I was taught and I believed and still believe that if I lack resilience, I might dwell on problems, feel victimized, become overwhelmed or turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. I do not pretend that I succeed in being resilient at all levels and all the time, but at least I try. I learned that resilience won’t make problems go away, but it can give the ability to see past them, to find enjoyment in life and better handle stress.

Following the Roueiss explosion (southern suburbs of Beirut) which occurred few days ago and the countless tragedies in major countries in the Arab world– Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine -, where thousands of individuals of different identities, generations and backgrounds are suffering, losing their homes, being tortured, raped, and killed, while others living in those countries or elsewhere are doing NOTHING, but just enjoying to the max their lives, or rejoicing to the sight of ‘enemies dropping like flies’…, I found myself asking this question: are Arabs resilient? And, in particular, are Lebanese resilient?

I know for a fact that there are resilient individuals, at least those whom I encountered, and those who fight relentlessly for peace. I also studied few cases of youth NGOs (2004-2007) and the work of Lebanese psychiatrists such as Adnan Houballah which proved the extensive war traumas within the Lebanese population, but also cases of resilient men and women in all communities. However, there aren’t enough resilient Lebanese to build a better future for their country. There aren’t enough resilient Arabs to build better Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Palestine. Turning one’s head away while others are suffering (“it’s not happening to me, nor to my family, so I’m not concerned”), offering baklavas and rejoicing while others are massacred, trivializing horrific deaths, blaming others, refusing to recognize one’s mistakes, playing the victim role, using psychological and-or physical violence, …: those are not resilient attitudes/outlooks/actions-reactions, and surely not constructive healthy practices on a national level. By following the ‘path of the ostrich’ or the ‘warlords’ game’, skills and strengths to cope and recover aren’t utilized; individuals and communities become overwhelmed by tragic experiences; they dwell on problems, experience more psychological distress, and aren’t able to break the cycle of violence.

I am not saying that resilience is the ONLY way to follow, nor that I – and others- am an example of resilience (I am surely not as resilient as I would like to be), but I believe in its effectiveness in tackling problems head on and overcoming adversity. It does not eliminate stress sources, nor does it erase life’s difficulties. But in the face of events that seem utterly unimaginable, resilient people and societies are able to marshal the strength to not just survive, but to prosper. And honestly, I do not wish for the Lebanese (and Arab) people – to ONLY or MERELY survive… I wish for them to become more resilient. I wish for resilient societies. I wish for those countries not to be failure dependent. A resilient society will be able to manage uncertainty, distress and conflicts. A resilient society means having caring and supportive relationships between citizens, having the common capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.

How can a resilient society be built? I don’t have the answer. Developing resilience is a personal journey, people do not react the same to traumatic events. There are varying strategies, but at least a first step is to recognize this diversity of reactions; a second step is to make connections (within families, civic groups, faith-based organizations, other local groups providing social support and reclaiming hope) and assist others in their time of need; a third step would be to learn together how to interpret highly stressful events and to respond to these events, to take decisive actions, rather than detaching completely from problems and wishing they would just go away, and also to avoid blowing some events out of proportion; a fourth step would be to look for opportunities for self-discovery and heighten our appreciation of life as a result of our struggles with loss…

True there is no template to apply, no binary set of rules about what is and is not resilient. Instead, as futurist Andrew Zolli and journalist Ann Marie Healy conclude in ‘Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back’: “Resilience is often found in having just the right amounts of these properties – being connected, but not too connected; being diverse but not too diverse; being able to couple with other systems when it helps, but also being able to decouple from them when it hurts.”

We are, as Lebanese, and also as Syrians, Egyptians, Iraqis and Palestinians, likely to experience more shocks and conflicts in the future, on different fronts, with increasing intensity. If we do not capitalize on the windows of opportunities that such crises may offer, if we do not ensure that those dreadful moments of breakdown and decadence lead to renewal, if we do not work on bouncing back from catastrophes and bouncing forward (anticipate, prepare for, and avoid as far as possible the worst excesses of the next disruptions), if we do not do things better nor do better things, we will collapse.

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