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Robin Pascoe recently authored The Carry-On Imperative: A Memoir of Travel, Reinvention & Giving Back.
Why can some people move on after an early childhood trauma while others haul around painful and debilitating emotional baggage forever? Right now, younger generations are continuing to grow up after their early lives were heavily disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It may be years before we see the long-term psychological outcomes, but one thing is for sure: If some of these children fail to thrive in their adult lives, they will likely, with a sense of despair, look to the pandemic as the reason why. I don’t believe it needs to be this way.
I was lucky. I managed to carry on with my life and flourish despite the sudden, life-altering loss of my mother to a brain aneurysm when I was 12. I never became a celebrity or won a Nobel Prize, but I’ve enjoyed a happy and successful life. I credit my resilience to many sources.
At home, I had the example of my own father. The son of Jewish immigrants who fled pogroms in what is now present-day Ukraine, my dad grew up in Wakaw, Sask. Later, when he studied dentistry at the University of Toronto in the 1940s, an openly antisemitic professor failed him in an important course. He shortened his Russian, Jewish-sounding surname and graduated the following year before serving Canada in the army during the Second World War. He was only in his mid-forties when his wife of 20 years died suddenly. Soon after, I watched him get up from our family shiva and return to work, putting one foot in front of the other. These were all powerful lessons in moving forward that I never forgot.
In moving on from childhood grief, it helped me that I was holding a winning ticket in the lottery of life. I had the good fortune to be born a Canadian. We’re a country that won another lottery, that of geography, giving us strong neighbours, and distance from faraway places beset by war. As a post-war baby boomer, I was able to ride every wave of the economic advantages my demographic has enjoyed. My family was affluent, white and professional. I never knew what food insecurity or homelessness looked like. Nor did I lack any professional opportunities. (Of course, I was born a woman so there was that to contend with, but I digress).
My greatest stroke of luck though, in my opinion, was the privilege of being born Jewish. Not everyone would agree, especially not now with the rise of rampant antisemitism. But I was raised in a culture that prizes education, achievement, character and philanthropy. By accident of birth, I was given the foundation upon which to build the purpose-driven life I was determined to lead, to honour my late mother. My resilience is clearly built into my DNA. After all, Jews invented it.
My life experience, however, gave me other role models. My husband, who was in the foreign service, processed what would become one of the most successful cohorts of immigrants ever to come to Canada: Vietnamese refugees. Their ability to thrive and succeed, many after traumatic escapes in rickety boats, should be viewed as the gold standard in resilience. Later, in the mid-1990s, we were sent to Seoul, a city that only 40 years earlier had lain in rubble after the Korean War. I saw firsthand a society and culture that knew how to carry on, driven by a powerful work ethic.
Of course, resilience isn’t an impervious shield against all of life’s ups and downs. I may have carried on, but the life-long grief I internalized appeared in various forms of anxiety and less-than-ideal behaviours (for example, drinking too much to combat a profound fear of flying was a habit I had to learn how to drop).
COVID-19 brought its own challenges. Like many looking for a healthier coping mechanism, I began writing during lockdown. I had just retired after almost 50 years in the workforce: first as a journalist, then as a diplomatic spouse, later as the author of five books about global living, and finally, as head of social impact for a global Canadian education brand. I was also creeping up to the age of 70. The pandemic took away all of my excuses for avoiding the memoir I had always threatened to write. As the pages of my life review slowly accumulated, it became obvious that resilience was the theme running through it – both my own and that of the people I was surrounded with.
And so, I believe we owe it to young people, who may be feeling despondent in this post-lockdown era, to remind them to look for role models of resilience in their own communities and beyond. We must tell them stories of overcoming hardships, no matter how small, so that they know suffering is an age-old – yet temporary – state of being for humankind. We must help them learn to keep striving in the face of setbacks. If you, like me, are a senior, don’t shy away from telling your stories to the young people around you. They may need your example more than you think.
As television sage to generations of children, Mr. Rogers famously offered this advice: In challenging times, look for the helpers. The pandemic generation should do the same. There are plenty of role models of resilience around, probably right in their own neighbourhood.
What else we’re thinking about:
After working on a memoir for three years, I’ve been thinking a lot about “life reviews.” I first heard the term during an interview Jane Fonda did with Julia Louis Dreyfus for her podcast Wiser Than Me, and I began suggesting the exercise to every woman I know of a certain age. Writing a life review is just one option; I suggested to a life-long quilting friend that she put all the extra pieces she’s collected over the years down on the floor and see how her life has unfolded that way, while an artist friend will have decades of work to re-examine. I highly recommend the exercise. You never know what you will discover about yourself.
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