Resilience

Nick StuartMarch 7, 2018ResiliencePerSpectives

One of the first TV interviews I ever did was with the Dalai Lama.

There was a camera crew following him around and they were filming me filming him, and they asked me if he was the most remarkable person I had ever interviewed. I have often thought about that question and, looking back on the many remarkable people I have interviewed over the years, I keep coming back to one quality in them that stands out for me: “resilience,” the strength to overcome.

Buddhists have a saying: “Get knocked down seven times, get up eight times.” Or, if you prefer the wisdom of the anarchist punk rock group Chumbawamba in their 1998 song “Tubthumping”: “I get knocked down but I get up again, you’re never going to keep me down.” Yes, life knocks us down every day. Isn’t it amazing that each day we find somewhere, deep down, the strength, the inspiration, the faith, to get right back up and turn a “no” and a “can’t” into a “yes” and a “can.” Where does that come from?

There are so many forms of resilience I have come across in my career as a journalist and documentary film producer. There’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who along with Nelson Mandela became the face of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Archbishop Tutu risked his life on a daily basis for years to end racial discrimination and ultimately bring down a government, a regime, and an ideology.

There’s the resilience of Mark Barden, a dad thrust into the spotlight to champion gun reform after his little son Daniel was killed in the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. And there’s Beverly, a mother from Milwaukee, finding the strength to hold her family together as her husband serves time in prison. Ordinary people being extraordinary. Reaching deep, deep down to find reserves of strength and drive that a day before they never knew they had. Finding out where they got their superpower resilience from has been an inspiring journey for me as a documentary filmmaker.

Let’s start with Beverly. Our film about mass incarceration, Milwaukee 53206, lifts up her story as she supports her husband Baron in his efforts to get parole and return home after 21 years in prison. She is the heartbeat of the family, taking her grandson to football practice, supporting her ill mother, and somehow finding time to study and work on her own business. Sometimes the hopelessness seems overwhelming. We see Beverly close the door on a day that would have crushed the rest of us. She confesses to the camera that she feels she can’t keep it all together on her own, but the next day she is there for her mother, her children, and her grandchildren and fighting again for her husband’s release. Where does her resilience come from? She finds strength in her faith, in love for her husband and for her family. She believes in justice and the rightness of the cause that her husband has served his time and should be released and allowed home. She has purpose.

Mark Barden’s story is told in the film Newtown. You see him at the White House where he met President Obama and at Congress where he pushed for background checks for all gun sales. Mark turns to the camera and almost pleadingly asks why he, an ordinary musician, is here, suddenly the focus and voice of a national movement along with other parents from Newtown. You see, Mark’s seven-year-old son Daniel was one of 20 six- and seven-year-olds shot dead in a mass shooting at their elementary school in 2012, along with 6 adults. How do you even get up the next day, let alone spearhead a movement?

As a fellow parent, Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan was killed in the same shooting, says in the film: “Each day is like your heart is ripped out and at night you shove it back in and start all over again the next day.” Mark and Nicole set up the organization Sandy Hook Promise, whose mission is “to honor all victims of gun violence by turning our tragedy into a moment of transformation by providing programs and practices that protect children from gun violence.”

Maybe there’s an answer here. In my experience of stories like this, being able to redirect the pain, or part of it, so that you use it to bring about something positive, provides a motivation that generates resilience. It doesn’t take the pain away, but you can redirect it.

Finally let’s look at Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of Cape Town and anti-apartheid campaigner, who I had the honor to interview several times. His task must have seemed hopeless. The power of the apartheid state lined up against you, your people denied basic rights, and the police and armed forces protecting a white supremacist position. What struck me about Archbishop Tutu’s resilience was not just that he didn’t give up hope, but that he refused to let the hate and anger destroy him as a caring human being. I remember when he came across what was called a “necklacing,” in which anti-apartheid protesters in South Africa turned on someone they felt was a black informer, someone betraying their own people to the white apartheid government. The punishment was to place a petrol filled tire around the victim so they couldn’t move and set it alight. Tutu rushed forward, threw his arms around the victim before the flames caught, and saved the man, even though the man represented the wickedness of an evil regime. Tutu’s resilience was such that his faith in the sanctity of every life was not compromised, even at the risk to his own life.

Years later I asked him why, in the midst of all those years of despair, he had kept his faith in God, which gave him the resilience to stand up for what was right and to continue the fight against apartheid. He told me the story of a Jewish man, forced to clean the latrines in a concentration camp during World War II, who was mocked by a Nazi guard who asked him “Where is your God now?” The man replied, “Down here in the shit with me.” His faith gave him resilience even as he faced hell on earth.

Love, faith, a desire for justice — these all fuel a sense of purpose that drives resilience. We can’t all be Mark Bardens or Beverlys or Archbishop Tutus, but they can inspire us and amaze us, and I have a feeling that if we were ever called to reach deep deep down, we might amaze ourselves at what we might find.

Nick has spent 30 years interviewing people for radio and TV on both sides of the Atlantic. From MTV and teen moral debating shows (The Big Question, UK’s “Channel 5”) to war zones and interviewing political and military and religious leaders (UK’s “Visions” series on ITV Network) and more recently to social justice feature documentaries in the U.S. — Nick has focused on exploring subjects that shine a light on what makes us tick as moral beings. As a reporter, Nick reported from the streets of Northern Ireland’s Belfast on the Protestant-Catholic sectarian “Troubles,” and also from Gaza during the first Intifada. He was in Ukraine, East Germany,Czechoslovakia, and Russia covering the fall of communism, and in South Africa covering the end of apartheid. More recently Nick moved from the UK to New York, where he now runs the multi-faith-based nonprofit organization Odyssey Impact (http://www.odyssey-impact.org), which specializes in using media to support faith-based and secular “changemakers” working for a more just and compassionate world. He is also President of its for-profit production company “Transform Films Inc.,” (http://www.transformfilmsinc.com) whose recent feature films have been screened at the White House under President Obama, at Congress and in hundreds of colleges and organizations and congregations across the country. Nick is also a member of the board of the nonprofit organization We Are Family (http://www.wearefamilyfoundation.org). Issues covered in recent films include gun violence and mass incarceration. The latest film, The Rape of Recy Taylor (https://www.therapeofrecytaylor.com/), lifts up “the right of women to walk through the world unmolested,” and won the prestigious Human Rights Award at the 2017 Venice International Film Festival.