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Books, Wolves & Wellbeing: Reading into Resilience

An American-born novelist once wrote of mankind’s mastery over everything living as observed through the eyes of the lone wolf and the pack. Jack London’s White Fang – a tale of the savage, unyielding wild, the triumph of life, and of personal liberation through learning – has long struck me not just as a parable of the bad vs. good, but of our natural and resounding potential for love, adaptation and, perhaps most importantly, resilience. It is through this enriching novel that Leading Lights commemorates World Book Day 2018, encouraging all to consider the importance of resilience in our wellbeing, and the role of literature in its formation.

White Fang tells of a young wolf-dog taken from the wild in the frozen north lands to serve the will of men. A conflict in environment; a pup forced from the wild and the wild forced from the pup. A competing of instincts until his primacy over lesser dogs is harnessed for the avarice of men. It is here that White Fang’s being is so profoundly restructured as to leave him near lost in hate and anguish, seemingly doing away with any potential of knowing a positive, peaceful existence. Wanting to cash in on his indomitable nature, White Fang’s newest and cruellest keeper, the misshapen Beauty Smith, shows him the hurt of mockery and the caress of the whip, all with the intention of producing a voracious fighting wolf. The calculated taunts of this single-minded gaoler are intensified by the exuberant jeers of the townsfolk who come to habitually goad the chained beast for their own amusement. And White Fang accepts his lot as cold steel accepts the forge; hot, angry, ready to harm. All residue of kindness weathered and corroded like the chain that holds him. From free-spirited cub, to prized sled-dog, to implacable fighting wolf – White Fang’s distinction in all his forced endeavours is matched only by his resilience and capacity to adapt. The willingness to forfeit what he once knew for the chance of success. The life within being vindicated. To man or beast it screamed, “Look! I’m still here!.”

However, kindness would interrupt White Fang’s morose existence. It came upon his senses like a menace; something unknown, something to be avoided. Yet adaptation, once again, would help him navigate his new circumstances. His last and final master, the admirable Weedon Scott, as if redeeming the rest of mankind for the wrong it had done, made special effort to show the fighting wolf a different life. One of peace, patience and consistent support, until White Fang’s being was re-established, this time into a gentler shape. His years of pain had, if learned, produced an amazing degree of resilience. It suffused his being. As much a part of him as the harness that brokered his continual retreat ahead of the maddened pack. But with warmth and a view to a long-term, supportive relationship, the trajectory of our coarsened wolf-dog was forever altered.

But what made our wolf resilient? Or, how did he develop Resilience? Let’s look to the humans. Psychology isn’t always unified in its terminology: Resilience, Resiliencies, Mental Hygiene, Mental Immunity. Or in definition: A flexible use of our emotional resources when pitted against adversity; a mediating construct that links our capacity to adapt to actual adaptation; the ability to bounce back from negative events using positive emotions. And so on. This last addition may be problematic. While that already threadbare cliché to ‘just be happy’ is seductive, positivity alone cannot be the mainspring of resilience. Take David, one of many adolescents supported by Leading Lights. David had to navigate the difficult route of teenhood with the added care of a severely disabled younger brother and a heavily disrupted home life. Consequently, David’s father had to spend much of his time at the hospital. David was pushed into constant moves between friends and family homes. The emotional and psychological toil has meant that positivity was often a contested emotion. David knew that resilience depended not on his happiness, but on being able to cope with the demands of his thwarted home life, education, and circumvented emotions. Thus, resilience need not be all about happiness, but concerned with one’s ability to remain consistent in inconsistent circumstances. In fact, mental health charity Mind defines Resilience as

not just your ability to bounce back, but also your capacity to adapt in the face of challenging circumstances, whilst maintaining a stable mental wellbeing.”

So, let’s think about a stable mental wellbeing and how we maintain it. Some social scientists distinguish between Assets and Resources as health protective constructs, the former being qualities intrinsic to a person and the latter being external factors that contribute to individual or group resilience. Coupled with David’s ability to cope and navigate his own way, Leading Lights worked with him every week for a year providing resilience-building resources through tutoring, mentoring and emotional support. After grappling with his grades and being supported through retakes, David is now at University and studying to becoming a doctor*. For us, however, it was never just about getting David to University. It’s about long-term relationship building and consistent support. It’s about linking David to the services he needs. It’s about resources. He still requires practical and emotional support, because things aren’t always okay – and that’s okay. According to the Challenge Model adversity may increase resilience and, in moderate amounts, leave us better prepared to deal with future risks. The potential to endure is enabled through the possibility of pain, and it is often through adversity that we charter a new course to stability, wellbeing and resilience. Might not ‘Resilience’ be a better reflective tool than happiness? Or rather, our wellbeing despite hardship; our strengths rather than our weaknesses.

It’s often through the strange plain print of our favourite stories that we can truly gauge the life of another, understand their plight, and slowly perceive ourselves in their character. Studies even suggest that reading about the emotional experiences of different characters enhances our own emotional understanding. Stories allow us to convey experiences that may be on the horizon for us, or indeed the ones that we are feeling right now. Perhaps reading is a health-protective resource. Our personal tutor, mentor and buttress. The perfect tale that helps us navigate our own way. As Philip Pullman writes

After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

With this, Leading Lights greatly anticipates the launch of our creative community hub this spring, where we’ll be turning pages and telling tales together through creative writing and reading programs for those who could not otherwise access such support.

However, for all you readers at home, there is something in the magic of White Fang’s journey of self-discovery from which there might be learning for us all. The ability to cope with his own thwarted nature was the fulcrum of all White Fang’s triumphs, and through reading this heartfelt tale we empathize with him in a way that feels safe.

Dmitry Davydov, Robert Stewart, Karen Ritchie, Isabelle Chaudieu. Resilience and mental health. Clinical Psychology Review, Elsevier, 2010, 30 (5), pp.479-95. <10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.003>. (Accessed 18th February 2018).

Charles Christiansen. Adolf Meyer Revisited: Connections between Lifestyles, Resilience and Illness. Journal of Occupational Science, 2011, 14 (2), pp.63-76, DOI: 10.1080/14427591.2007.9686586 Accessed 18th February 2018).

*personal details have been manipulated to maintain anonymity.

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