Himmat na harna: Is Pakistan’s resilience also its undoing?

Published December 11, 2015
It is necessary, at times, to let hurt overwhelm us. —AFP
It is necessary, at times, to let hurt overwhelm us. —AFP

Exactly a year ago, our already battered society suffered from one of the most horrendous acts in our (violent) history. At least 144 people, most of them children (132), were killed when Taliban gunmen attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar.

Despite a desensationalised society, as a result of constant exposure to terror, this particular act of brutality managed to strike a chord that had, for a while, remained shrouded underneath indifference and hopelessness.

The immediate response was driven by anger and grief, exacerbated by the sudden realisation of how far we had fallen as a nation to allow the massacre of schoolchildren. But a year later, we remain enclosed in a quagmire of social, political and economic problems.

Collective action and the awakening of our national conscience that was called on after this attack has once again failed to take hold. What more do we need than this grotesque attack on our children to be the climax of our terrorism-ridden recent history?

Also read: 144 stories: Peshawar school attack memorial

Ask any Pakistani about the country and they will proudly tell you how we have remained resilient through the worst of times.

Even our most bitter critics, scholarly or otherwise, will pay homage to our resilience and unwavering capacity for withstanding all tests. It has become the cornerstone of our identity; to be Pakistani means being able to adapt to any situation.

Remarkable as it may be, this potentially lies at the heart of our undoing.

Don't accept the status quo

Despite the rampant exploitation, elite-centric development, continued lack of basic utilities, corruption and a host of other problems, the people appear to be paralysed and increasingly hopeless. Often, people say that all that is lacking is that spark, that one moment of overwhelming emotion, which can no longer be holed up.

Well, if the APS attack, repeated floods, deaths from heatstrokes and earthquakes and growing urban terrorism are not bone-chilling enough to warrant a reaction, then our humanity needs some serious resuscitation.

Instead, there is a resigned acceptance of the status quo that is casting its shadow over the nation. It is easy to see how this can be mistaken for resilience.

Nothing gives a better analogy of our current state than our cricket team and its fluctuations, persisting systematic and structural flaws, corruption and nepotism becoming the new normal, only for that one resounding victory to arouse chants of resilience, acting as a veil from taking some painstaking reform.

The narrative that has been shaped for decades, and continues today, whether by the media or in public discourse, stresses on the importance of resilience and 'himmat na harna'.

Even our narrative of history is centred on our unwavering resolve at critical junctures, without acknowledging our own faults in creating those situations.

But it is high time now that we take moments like the first anniversary of the APS attack to seriously introspect and critically analyse these very mantras that we have so vehemently learnt.

What does it truly mean to be resilient and when is it merely an excuse for lack of will?

This by no means undermines the tremendous strength of character that has been shown by the victims of various tragedies; it simply calls into question the society's response as a whole.

Resilience: Virtue or sedative?

Up until now, it seems that this narrative of resilience has been effectively utilised by those in the echelons of power to neutralise collective action and insulate themselves from public accountability.

By this constant hammering in of the need for resilience and how admirable it is, Pakistan's social conscience has been indoctrinated with this notion of every tragedy being a test of resilience, a test we must pass in order to maintain our identity and our dignity.

As this philosophy has been weaved into our social fabric and public narrative, there is little need for the direct suppression of collective action because it is well-known that ‘resilience’ will override the will to change.

It is time that we seriously question these dogmas that have overtaken our ability to react. Resilience can either work as an inspiring virtue or as a powerful sedative; its role depends on whether we let ourselves be manipulated by its appeal or actually use it to supplement the will to change.

Also read: Resilience alone won't save Pakistan

Currently, we are part of a system where the concepts of dignity and pride given their cultural importance have been deftly distorted to distract people from recognising manipulation.

Rather than self-worth as the fundamental premise of our identity, beliefs and actions, it is the concocted notions of dignity tied to tribe, ethnicity and the like that overshadow our existence.

Strength is defined as the ability to withstand any situation, to be resilient, but to react or to criticise is considered weakness. These misplaced notions of identity, and the need to even lay down lives for them, have become the opium of our people.

Resilience needs to be used to recreate our identity, pride, dignity, honour and nationalism. The failure that underlies all our dilemmas is a lack of self-worth, a lack of this very important realisation that we deserve better, and that we can get better.

It is our renowned resilience that can provide the strength and courage to undertake painstaking but vital reforms in order to break the shackles that hold us down in this illusion. While we champion our strength, we remain terrified of criticism or change.

Also read: Trauma: The real cost of unending war and disaster in Pakistan

We remain easily appeased by a few shallow signs of progress here and there, incapable of mustering the will to swallow the bitter pill and make sacrifices that truly bring about structural reform.

We need to learn that it is not only acceptable but also an act of true valour to accept our weaknesses.

It is necessary at times to let pain and hurt overwhelm us, rather than putting on a brave face, if they are to be used as catalyst for real change.

As Nadeem Aslam infamously said,

Pakistan produces people of extraordinary bravery. But no nation should ever require its citizens to be that brave.


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