Cutting-edge research in the last 20 years has finally proven Freud right, at least in his original insight. Early childhood experiences can alter a persons entire life course, and even lifespan. Children who suffer adverse experiences – including neglect or abuse, but also death of a parent, poverty, or parents divorce – exhibit changes in their blood chemistry and brain structure that only in the past few years has become measureable by medical technology. Long-term studies on huge populations show a strong, proportional relationship between the number of adverse experiences in a childs early life and cardiovascular disease, some forms of cancer, hallucinations, obesity, depression, IV drug use, autoimmune diseases, sexually-risky behaviors and suicide attempts. The list, unfortunately, goes on.
While the science is exciting, the results seem at first depressing – until one looks at the other side of the coin. To say that children who grow up in adversity are at a greater risk for dire outcomes is another way of saying that many of them avoid such outcomes. Many children with rotten childhoods are damaged profoundly, but many others are amazingly resilient. They are, as the title of one landmark book puts it, Vulnerable but Invincible.
Resilience is a hot topic of research in the social sciences. New discoveries come tumbling off the presses in a couple dozen scholarly journals. From a professional point of view, its easy to understand the scientists excitement. If we could bottle the essence of resilience and sell it as an elixir, we would provide a cure for many of the leading causes of premature death. But for a reader or viewer, the science means little until it is put into the context of individual lines. Above all, resilience is the triumph of individuals, and the amazing human capacity for adaptation that allows some of us to thrive in the least-nurturing environments.
Resilience tells the stories of a dozen or so truly remarkable individuals, describing their triumphs over trauma and adversity. Interwoven with their stories are the related tales of a different series of triumphs – those of the scientists, from molecular biologists to anthropologists, whose discoveries have made resilience the 21st centurys most exciting field of research. Connecting lines are drawn from the science to the lives of individuals and back again.
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