On resilience, again

(This might be a hard read, since it is a direct response to the horrible, tragic passenger plane crash that happened in Karachi on May 22nd, 2020, and is informed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It is sloppy, and messy, and emotional, and angry in ways that are perhaps unwarranted, but I can at least promise sincerity. I’m sorry for any offense caused or additional pain caused. Things are genuinely hard these days.)

If life in general is a theater of the absurd, what does that make life under a global pandemic?

Every day lately feels like a moment of reckoning. Even the most mundane day feels like it’s being committed into some kind of cosmic time capsule, waiting to be reopened “when things go back to normal.” Every thing I do seems like it holds a little more weight, means a little something else than it would have before all this happened. What makes the weightiness of everything feel completely stupid is the fact that we’re acting aspirationally (myself included). But not aspirationally for a better future, but aspirationally for a past that may never be the same again – and a past that, let’s face it, could really have been a lot better.

I’ve written about resilience in the past, under the worst of circumstances. I don’t believe in “resilience.” I used to, before the APS massacre happened, believe that it not only existed, but that it was laudable – something beautiful that lets people persevere – Pakistanis – despite terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and poverty. I needed to believe that, I think. Not only because of the beauty of the idea but because on some level, I needed to justify the fact that I had homework to do, groceries to buy, social obligations to fulfill regardless of x calamity. I needed something to get me out of bed in the morning.

So, I was resilient. Beautiful, in buying my groceries. And we, collectively, were the ideal of the strong nation, blessed with fortitude, an enterprising people. Normalcy, we said, and were told, was the ultimate weapon against the terrorist. I don’t want to dispute that; certainly, if the object of terror is to terrorize, then perhaps perseverance is the correct antithesis.

But what happens when the calamity is not perpetrated by an enemy? By people, to whom moral meaning can be ascribed? What if calamity is just chance? Disease? Bad, bad, bad timing? What does resilience mean in the face of chance?

I woke up in the morning, read the news about the plane crash, and immediately switched to Instagram. I scrolled through some mindless memes, felt my brain settle back into its morning malaise away from the immediate swell of pain and horror that came from reading that news, and turned to talk to my husband. I didn’t mention the news. I had forgotten about it by that point. Not because I actually forgot, of course, but because I needed to compartmentalize the pain away so that I could function. When I messaged my mother on Whatsapp and she bravely, honestly told me that she felt sad and down because of the news, only then did my brain allow me to feel the malaise. By that point, I had washed my face, brushed my teeth, made coffee, and finished breakfast. I had even searched for internships. Is that resilience?

Last March, when the news about the Christchurch massacre broke, it was 11pm at night. I had work the next day. My job revolved entirely around researching terrorism and other human-perpetrated atrocities. I sobbed for an hour, desperately read through the news, and then went to bed. The next morning, knowing that I would have to confront this news again but as a researcher, not as a Muslim woman grieving for my Ummah, able to weep before bed but not before work, I compartmentalized the grief away and took the bus to work. Before long, I found myself tasked to read the perpetrator’s manifesto and went home feeling less than human. Is that resilience?

Here’s what I think resilience is. Resilience when we choose, on some level, to not fully process the pain we have experienced in order to maintain normalcy; because it is too much, too too much, to actually face what has happened. But on another level, a societal level (not a policy level, because resilience means something very different in policy) it is additionally the refusal to face what needs to change in order for that calamity to be less potent or intense or cruel in the future. We need “normalcy;” as it was before, not what it could be after: not something better and truer, but more familiar.

And so, I am sitting on the couch, at 3pm, trying to tell myself that what I really need to be doing right now is something productive. Work on my thesis, maybe, or look for internships more aggressively, or keep studying French and Arabic. But my compartmentalization from earlier was not as airtight as I might have wanted it to be and what I’m actually doing is suffering the consequences of not processing what has happened today – and more broadly, what has been happening since mid-March. And I am sad. And lost. And upset at myself for not working. As if that is the salve to the deaths of scores of Pakistanis. As if my productivity will make up for the pandemic, that has killed so many innocent people.

How many of us have honestly confronted numbers? I haven’t. I know I will fall apart if I do, and I have dreams that require being put together. So I continue to muddle through, plodding towards a “normal” that looks familiar, but not better. Because if I look at the numbers, if I feel numbers, then I will have to atone for my resilience and grieve, and grieve, and grieve.

This is a grieving year. And I am failing. There is no glory in resilience; only normalcy, only complacency. I am trying to be better, but to be better, I have to let myself be weak. We – I – never learnt how to be weak, and we have failed as a consequence.

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