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Altering Narratives: from Change to Resilience

We are all seen, now, as beings who are wafting through the anxieties and woes that come paired with a time like the present, in a way that is somewhat similar to how one might get habituated to a novel stimuli in no time. You notice it in an overwhelming and glaringly obvious way at first, but, with time and adequate encounters, you perceive it less, almost as if it was never there to begin with. You wonder why your next door neighbor is cooking fried fish with mustard on a Sunday morning, as you wake up, the air heavy with the smell, thinking, “That is so strong, how are they so close to it?”. But, as weekends pass, you see yourself getting used to it, going about your day, without the slightest mention of it.

Sure, a sharp smell is in no way similar to the abrupt breakdown of the familiar and normal, but it does say a significant amount about just what we can adapt to. Catching up with a friend on a screen as you schedule a ‘Netflix Party’ , talking, with laughter and sentences buffering as you fill in the gaps, while you hurriedly take a picture so that you have something to go back to a few days later, thinking, ‘It isn’t so bad, right? I think we had a good time’, as opposed to the seven of you spending the weekend sprawled in your friend’s living room, drinking light beer, discussing what happened that week at work, and letting your minds unload and lighten in unison. Weekly dinner dates with a friend, six people sitting at a table for two, and an intimate potluck seem like events which are saved and reserved specially for the far future, while we convince ourselves that thinking about when, and if we will have that again, might not be the best suited approach, and that getting used to the uncertainty and unpredictability, the unusual and chaotic frequency with which things are changing, might just be what sees us through this.

Even with such committed awareness, all of us indulge in rhetoric often, exchanging curated notes on what we fondly miss from ‘before’, complaining about the present. In a similar exchange, I began sharing details with my grandmother, who patiently listened until I finished, and said, “You know, I was thinking about it, and I realised that I have seen everything from Independence, to this pandemic”. Saying it with such ease and rationality, she then went on to talk about this modern tragedy that we are all a part of, convinced that now, she had seen it all. The more I thought about it, I realised that we cannot refer to any past event or experience that can help us better navigate this anomaly, as there is none that seems similar.

But, I could not help but think, can an event that occurred 73 years ago give us a frame of reference to the situation we are in?

When we think about Independence, or The Partition, that occurred along with it, we are aware of the stark difference in social, political and economic climate that existed then, and now. Citizens, then, were running from communal violence and bloodshed, with close to 12 million people displaced, in search of a new home across the border, with not an inkling of surety of the future. Now, there are close to 26 lakh migrant workers stranded across the country, desperate to go back home, with different strata of the population in different conditions, only slowly inching toward getting used what is the new normal.

But why? Why talk about The Partition now? The only common thread that tie the two together seems to be one of strong fear and anxiety about what is to come, while we slowly lose a grip over what we can really control. With them juxtaposed, we see the contrast between the two episodes with greater clarity, with only the commonality of emotion bringing them closer.

But, what we can see is the older generations having experienced unrest, displacement, violence and great loss, and yet, rebuilding such losses with pronounced and unimaginable resilience. Drawing such parallels is in no way an attempt to compare the struggles and worries that lived then and now, but simply a way to gain perspective and use an alternate lens to look at what we are a part of; another way we can make sense of it. We can turn to such exceptional strength in times like these, where concerns around health, safety and loss seem unending, with hope and optimism searched and sought eagerly on some days more than others.

When I made an attempt to better understand the implications of the current event for an individual in the long term, reviewing what research had to say about predicting our feelings in the future seemed appropriate. It has been established that we do have a fair idea about what might make us bored or anxious, or what might be thrilling. But, there are times when we may not predict our feelings correctly.

A simple example that can help us understand this, is our tendency to shop more impulsively when hungry, simply because you think you might enjoy eating a box of doughnuts more than you actually will. Similarly, Dunn & Ashton-James (2008), found that when natural disasters occur, people often anticipate their sadness to be greater if more people are killed. But, students’ sadness was similar when the anticipated deaths were 50, as opposed to 1,000. It was consequently found that what did, in fact, influence how sad people felt was seeing images of victims, explaining why certain images on television have an impact on us.

What we are very prone to, after experiencing negative events, is something called impact bias, which we can understand as overestimating the impact of events that cause excessive emotion. But, again, why is this important? Wilson and Gilbert (2005), state its significance by explaining ‘affective forecasts’-predictions of future emotions- that influence the decisions we take, such as investing in a Mercedes against what may be advised, simply because we think it will result in pleasure that is extreme and lasting.

But, when we think about events that do have an adverse impact on how we live, what we are able to do, and our control over the situation, such as this, we may think such principles do not apply, and that the effects of this will stay with us in a way that may seem unending and extreme. What we can look toward, then, is the fact that we do have a tendency to underestimate the speed and power that our psychological immune system holds, which entails how we may rationalize, forgive and limit emotional trauma. ‘Immune neglect’, as found by Gilbert and Wilson, shows how we remain ignorant of our psychological immune system, where we do readily adapt to negative events that may range from a team defeat to a romantic breakup, faster and better than we ever thought we were capable of.

What we should keep with us, is this very belief, that we are far more resilient under most circumstances than we anticipate, and hence, are more than adept and able to recover from an event that has changed the way we live, and what we think about ourselves and the world, at large.

-Written by: Ketaki Singh

Illustration Credits: Sanya Jain

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