Seeing light in the deepest darkness

“How do you survive something like that?” I think it’s one of the questions I’ve asked the most. As a journalist, I meet many people who have experienced something that they always thought would happen to someone else. But no one is exempt from misery. I spoke to Jeanne and Bart Hornikx, who lost their daughter in the MH17 disaster, in 2014. I spoke to Arold Dingemans, a man who is slowly becoming deaf and blind. Anne-Laura van Harmelen, resilience professor, but above all mother of a multiply disabled child. Arjan Erkel, who was kidnapped and held captive by extremists in Dagestan for almost two years. I spoke to Ameline Ansu, who lost her parents at a young age. Farida Nabibaks, who struggled with intergenerational, never discussed trauma due to the slavery of her ancestors. I spoke to Nicole Adams, who lost her friends in the Hercules disaster (1996) and suffered brain damage as a result.

The battered ones, I call them, the battered ones, but above all: people who are worn out. They knew what it felt like when the proverbial ground was pounded away from under your feet, but they also knew how to deal with it. Keep breathing. Learning to laugh again, to live with sometimes immense sadness, sometimes with your soul under your arm, but still: to live.

Because of that wisdom, I always thought there was an air of mystery surrounding these people. They have what philosophy calls an ‘epistemic transformative experience’: that through a certain experience a person learns something essential that cannot be learned without that experience. You won’t get ‘there’, to that wisdom, any other way. And also applies: once you know, you know. You will never go back to the open-mindedness you had before that experience.

Modified DNA

In 2017 I was able to join those people. My preference: a life with a warm, sparkling, funny mother. My after: a life without a warm, sparkling, funny mother. For two years I felt like a dog chasing its own tail, how is this possible? But I also felt that after those two years it slowly became lighter. How did I do that? What allows people to continue to rise after loss? Is resilience something that everyone has within them? Can you find it somewhere? Incite? Strengthen? Training in advance? And: is every person equally resilient?

I asked and searched and found, and wrote a book about resilience, in which I address these questions. Because let’s face it: our society functions by the grace of resilience. Without resilience, the majority of people would not get out of bed or function, in fact, the majority of people would not exist at all, because only a resilient species can reproduce itself.

I spoke to people who came to know the ugliness of life, but also scientists and doctors who investigated what that ugliness can do to people. “Every person is resilient,” Marco Boks, psychiatrist and researcher at the psychiatry department of UMC Utrecht, told me. Thirty percent of all psychiatric problems are related to trauma. Boks and his colleagues discovered that in many people who experienced trauma in their youth, the DNA has adapted, making them more resilient. The code of the DNA does not change, but it does change which parts are active, he explains. “We thought that these genetic adjustments were harmful, that they were scars, but they appear to actually contribute to the resilience mechanism.”

But there are also people for whom these adjustments do not or hardly take place. Other research by Boks, which he conducted in 2017 among 96 soldiers deployed to Afghanistan, showed this. The soldiers provided DNA before leaving and upon return. “Some of the soldiers returned with PTSD complaints, and some without. Fewer changes were found in the DNA in that PTSD group, while more were found in people without psychological complaints. It is like most of the qualities that nature has divided and determined for us: some have a lot of resilience, some have extremely little, most are in between.”

Resilience is not only a genetic issue but also a trait that you can promoteMarco Bokspsychiatrist and researcher at the psychiatry department of the UMC

It also partly depends on our character, explained Emma Pleeging, who obtained her PhD at Erasmus University on the subject of ‘hope’. Hopeful people who have good imagination and can see light at the end of the tunnel are generally more resilient and get more done. Hope ensures that we believe that good things can happen, and through the leap of faith that is in it (we are not sure that it will happen), hope makes us active: we take steps to make those good things happen – which can create a virtuous circle. Other studies show: the less narcissistic you are, the more flexible you are with how life presents itself.


But resilience also depends on what you experience. This can increase as more difficult things come your way, provided it does not become too much, let the stress inoculation theory was invented by Michael Rutter, the now deceased first British professor of child psychiatry at King’s College. He suggested that you must have experienced a certain degree of stress, ‘moderate and manageable stress’, which ensures greater resilience. This theory basically suggests: a little bit of stress is good for you. I compare it to a vaccine: you get a little diphtheria, a little polio, a little tetanus, so that you are resistant to it if you really become infected.

Resilience thrives best on connection, as is evident from all the conversations I had. “I have always regarded resilience as an interrelational concept,” said Dirk De Wachter, psychiatrist of the country in Belgium and seriously ill since last year. He has colon cancer, which can be managed with pain relief, but cannot be cured. “It always has to do with the other person. The feathers are all around us. I saw it in people in my practice with serious problems, and I have now experienced it personally how it is that I can continue, that I can see some light in the deepest darkness. It’s about the other person. And yourself in relation to the other person.”

“When I’m in trouble, I lean on the shoulder of my sister, brother, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, my parent. I am very grateful that they are there,” said Nando Liebregts (28). He has Down syndrome and struggles with it every now and then. Natasja Alderliefste’s son (53) has been missing since 2017, and she has been looking for him ever since. She states that she no longer wants superficial contact. “I have more depth in my life. I am more open about my pain, and others can do the same with me. I need that.” And Boet Kwarten (36), who struggled with severe depression and suicidal thoughts for years, felt his head lighten after sharing those thoughts and depressions with his family and now also with his girlfriend.

“There it is dark weather,” he says. “I will help you,” she says.

Researchers do not know exactly how that works. But it is a hopeful message, says Boks. “Resilience is not only a genetic issue but also a characteristic that you can promote. If something bad happens to you, it is good to look at your surroundings. Who do you hang out with, but also: where do you live? Do the people around you support you well enough, what kind of work do you do, and is it all good for you now that you have experienced something bad? If you know that your resilience is related to your environment, then you also know that you can increase that resilience by changing your environment.”

Wave motion

All this makes resilience a layered concept, it consists of all kinds of small links that are not only innate, but sometimes also learned, or can be learned. Zahira Mous was raped several times and struggled with PTSD for years. She compared resilience to three pillars. “It’s about spirituality,” she said, “about your social network” (again the connection) “and about expression,” so whether you can express yourself. That may be where art comes in, or sports, music, writing, meditation, going to church, or setting up a peer support group. Sadness as a driving force to get something done is also a strong resilience factor. According to psychology, this falls under cognitive reappraisal: dragging something beautiful out of your misery.

“But it takes so much time and effort before you realize what works for you,” said Zahira Mous. It takes a lot of kicking in the butt to discover your own resilience factors. You can wallow in self-pity in your misery, but not for too long. You can recognize your own victim role, but you must also be able to step out of it, “because that role makes every person uglier,” said Arold Dingemans, who is losing his hearing and sight due to a rare disease.

We know that resilience costs energyMarten Schefferecologist Wageningen University

“You only get the experience of how to deal with something after the moment you need it most,” said a woman who learned at the age of 32 that she could not have children. Moreover, it is also a wave movement: once you have experienced sadness that lasts a lifetime, the search for resilience will also last a lifetime.

Marten Scheffer is an ecologist at Wageningen University and conducts research into the resilience of lakes, oceans and jungles. But he also uses these resilience principles for research into, for example, the elderly and people with depression. Because, he says: everything and everyone has a tipping point. “We know that resilience costs energy. You have to invest in that. And if it’s not necessary, you generally don’t do it.” He often compares man to a plant. “In an environment where everything is always almost the same: the same amount of rain, the same temperature… species that live there are not at all resilient when conditions suddenly change. But look at plants that can withstand night frost: they produce substances that prevent them from freezing. But they had to ‘teach’ themselves that due to extremely variable weather conditions that they had to brave, and you only do that when it is necessary.” What Scheffer wants to say: resilience is lost in an environment where it is not called upon, and resilience arises in places where it is needed. “And there you see how beautiful that is.”