Resilience as Odyssey

I have been reading Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Gratitude, and it’s a really captivating read. I find compelling Tough’s argument that success has more to do with character and one’s having skills like perseverance, curiosity, optimism, and self-control than it does intelligence and high standardized test scores. His model of telling stories of children growing up in poverty, many of whom are also contending with enrollment at malfunctioning schools, neglectful parents, bad decisions, and so on (i.e., stories of children who appear to have virtually no chance to succeed), is one that I plan to emulate to the end that I can include among my Synthesis students’ assignments 15 blogs (one for each week of the semester) that reveal their reflections on the attributes and experiences that helped people in the past master change successfully and bounce back when the tough got going. Five of the blogs will focus on historical figures from the ancient past as a means of students’ probing the ancient roots of resilience; another five will highlight examinations of literary characters who show grit as self-manufactured painstakingly over time by working through problems and challenging experiences; and the last five will be stories they share of people they know who have exercised the ability to face life’s difficulties with courage and patience, never refusing to give up.

The blog assignment will be aimed at challenging my students to identify recurring qualities in the resilient people they read, think and write about as a means of creating a theoretical framework for determining the thing that changes in a person’s life and inclines him or her toward the idea of hard work and success.

In my efforts at thinking about how best to organize my students’ readings such that I can guide them most effectively into different ways of asking the question, what are the building blocks of resilience?, I have been re-reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, one of the course’s required texts. The idea of literary quest and its concomitant ties to resilience draws readers’ attention to its mysteries and riddles that ask to be solved. In fact, as early as page three of Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison introduces the idea of quest as inextricably linked to the devotion to duty manifested in Mr. Smith’s (the town insurance agent) farewell note in which he conveys his decision to “take off from Mercy and fly away on [his] own wings.”

The symbolism of flight elucidates Morrison’s treatment of the quest and inevitably raises the central concern that forms the novel’s basis—the search for identity and, indeed, freedom. Morrison’s portrayal of flight as the premeditated decision to escape confining circumstances turns historical fiction into more than a means of moral instruction and racial affirmation. The novel includes those intentions, of course, but it reverberates as well a rarely discussed subtext: a search for faith and the opportunity for transformation that originates in Africa and spans four generations. Such considerations will lay the groundwork for a mindful reaching back in time in an effort to clear space for open, ethical and pluralistic class discussions about what it means to find one’s own path.

As I guide the students through our exploration of Song of Solomon, my plan is to frame the novel through a series of questions about the ways in which the various members of the Dead family define human acts of fortitude and how these definitions confine or liberate their behavior and judgments. The questions we consider will lead right into the question of what makes the quest of an ordinary (wo)man possible or even extraordinary.

While the mysteries in Song of Solomon are not solved simply, they raise as many questions as they answer. That Morrison advances multiple forms of resilience manifesting as the development of self-discovery, knowledge and good character, she also presents circumstances in which resilience is exercised as a vice. It will be important for us to examine closely trans-generational attitudes toward personal responsibility while simultaneously culling textual evidence of the kind of consciousness that spawns resilience as virtue and the circumstances that result in resignation.

My personal, intellectual odyssey of organizing this new course thus far has encouraged my exploration of the ways in which cultures from around the globe (in Song of Solomon, Africa figures strongly) as well as the myriad subcultures within America’s borders have influenced American society in its efforts at surmounting seemingly unbridgeable cultural divides.


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