Bidisha chats to her guests about their personal experiences of resolve, and considers its complicated relationship to happiness.
Artist and writer Scottee reads his specially commissioned text asking whether resolve is all it’s cut out to be.
Storytellers and activists Elif Shafak and Hassan Akkad talk about individual and collective responsibility in a world of conflict and injustice. Hassan recounts his journey from Syria to a Covid ward in a London hospital, while Elif reflects on the power of stories and the positives of pessimism.
This episode contains references to torture, sexual assault and suicidal thoughts.
Presented by Bidisha
Produced by Debbie Kilbride
Sound design by Micky Curling
Music by Sola
Researched by Priya Jay
Bidisha (0:00): Welcome to ‘Hello Happiness’, the podcast that’s all about positive emotions, brought to you by Wellcome Collection, the free museum and library in London that challenges us to think and feel differently about health. I’m Bidisha. I’m a broadcaster and filmmaker. And on ‘Hello Happiness’, we’ve reached our second stop: ‘Resolve’. You might not think that sounds very happy. I even had to go into town and sit down with producer Debbie to persuade her.
Debbie Kilbride (0:33): This is episode two.
Bidisha (00:34): Yeah.
Debbie Kilbride (00:36): So we’ve done hope.
Bidisha (00:37): We’ve done hope and I really wanted to do resolve. And I know it doesn’t sound like a positive emotion, but to me, resolve–
Debbie Kilbride (0:45): I don’t get it. Explain it to me, Bidisha.
Bidisha (0:47): Resolve is when you hit absolutely rock bottom. And you make a decision and you say, “I’m going to hold my head up high. I’m going to be a survivor. I’m going to thrive. I’m going to rise up like a phoenix from the ashes.”
Debbie Kilbride (1:04): I can see you doing it.
Bidisha (1:06): It’s that moment where you go: “I am determined to be happy.” Happiness is a decision and resolve is that turning point where you go from victim to victor.
Debbie Kilbride (1:20): I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that, I mean...
Bidisha (1:21): I bet you have. What’s your rock bottom?
Debbie Kilbride (1:24): Yeah, well, okay. It’s either heartbreak, or grief, losing someone I love. That’s my rock bottom.
Bidisha (1:31): Yeah, loss.
Debbie Kilbride (1:32): But I can’t tell you how I pulled myself up.
Bidisha (1:34): But whatever you used, it worked, because you’re here and we’re sitting talking. It doesn’t matter how you got here. Everyone gets there by a different route. And the fact is that you didn’t let the heartbreak defeat you.
Debbie Kilbride (1:51): If we’re going to do this, let’s go and talk to someone who’s at the pinnacle.
Bidisha (1:55): Someone who’s really come through it, gone through the trenches and decided that they’re gonna fight and survive and thrive and shine like the sun.
Debbie Kilbride (2:06): Okay, Rihanna, are you ready?
Bidisha (2:14): Well, I convinced producer Debbie in the end. I think we agree that resolve involves recovery and return, refusing to let your worst experiences define you. But is it more complicated than that? Can we ever truly achieve resolution? And is it only down to us as individuals? Two people to guide me deeper into this are psychotherapist and author Susie Orbach and broadcaster Jeff Brazier. Jeff published a book about grief after surviving bereavement in many forms. Susie Orbach talked about the nuances and subtleties of resolve.
Susie Orbach (2:52): I think resolve is some kind of promise to oneself. It doesn’t have to be huge. It can be a tiny form of commitment to engage in something that has significance to you.
Bidisha (3:05): Jeff Brazier, we’re talking about that moment of decision, the moment of commitment to oneself. I’m interpreting it in a positive light: for example, a refusal to make a bad situation worse, or perhaps a determination to survive. Does that speak to you at all, when you come to think of the word ‘resolve’?
Jeff Brazier (3:26): Hugely. For me, put simply, it’s the ability to stay on task. It’s a good thing to recognise within oneself, to have an appreciation and awareness of your ability to go beyond the negative voices that call for you to stop. As a child that was born to a 15-year-old mum, I know that I wasn’t really getting what I needed. And I had to probably fulfil a lot of those gaps that were left myself somehow. So I’m really proud that I’m somebody that is able to use resolve in a number of different situations.
And really, I think what comes in it for me is realising that there is always choice. That you can use resolve, or you can actually just stop. But to actually continue and to persevere and to go beyond where you thought your ceiling was. Everybody has a limit, but I’ve always felt like I benefit from the fact that I know that where I think my limits are; they’re not – they’re beyond that.
So I trust in the fact that another step and another step, and that I’ll always be okay. And I trust that.
Bidisha (4:28): Susie Orbach, Jeff is talking about the importance not just of making the resolution, but taking steps, actions rather than words, going with substance rather than what’s on the surface. In the course of your work, how have you seen your clients or your patients, I guess, their resolutions paying forward?
Susie Orbach (4:49): Well, I think I understand what Jeff’s saying. The importance of the notion of resolve is about the repetition of risk all the time that you’re daring to extend your capacity, your emotional capacity.
And obviously, sitting with people in difficulty, part of what you’re doing is enabling them to actually feel what’s terribly difficult for them to feel and not clothe it in words. So the action in therapy could be about surrendering to a feeling of loss, or pain, or excitement, or pleasure; it could be a whole range of things that we’re all scared of.
So when you ask me, “How do they do it?” – they’re doing it in the session, they’re doing it in the context of a relationship which enables that. And that then becomes a way of then drawing on that when they’re not in the consulting room, because obviously, life has to be lived.
Bidisha (5:56): Jeff, you’ve spoken and written about grief and survival. I wondered if you could explain a little bit about that journey. You’re feeling all the grief, and nothing can take that away. But, actually, you decided to focus publicly on survival and trying to live with those negative emotions.
Jeff Brazier (6:16): Yeah, I mean, I’ve told you a little bit about my background, I, then, you know, went on to be fostered. And basically just a lot went on in childhood. So beyond that, I think that gives you the ability to again use some form of resolve, not that you know it as that, but just whatever saw you through one chapter in your life becomes what you naturally try and adopt when it’s, you know, necessary again.
In all honesty, I would have tackled it all with positivity, and you know, I can do this, and this is going to be okay, we’re going to make it work. And I think it’s maybe a typical male lesson to learn at some point during your life, but I wasn’t showing enough vulnerability. And I probably didn’t work that one out until the last couple of years, to be fair. And then when I started to do that more, things get a lot easier; you become a better example to your children; you become slightly more human. So…
Bidisha (7:05): Jeff, what do you mean by vulnerability? Do you mean the ability to ask for help?
Jeff Brazier (7:10): To just share what is the reality. I think resolve sometimes is your ability to overrule the need to be vulnerable. And you can use it in a negative sense. Whereas when I stopped using positivity and resolve, however you want to label that, and started to just accept that there is great vulnerability there and that the situation, not just that I’ve been through with the boys but in life generally, will have left its mark, and there will be things for me to unravel.
Actually, what it then means is that people can see into you in a way that they didn’t before; it means that you can get closer to people, and, you know, it’s all a bit of a relief when you do that.
Bidisha (7:50): Susie Orbach, do you agree with that on the importance not just of vulnerability, but this great word that Jeff uses: acceptance – sitting with the good, the bad and the ugly?
Susie Orbach (7:59): Well, I suppose the thing I find really problematic is I don’t think there is anything called happiness that isn’t synthetic, if we don’t have the experience of recognising our own grief, losses, feelings of abandonment, feelings of pain, vulnerability. So of course I agree with him. And I don’t think acceptance is an easy thing. It’s an active state of receiving the feeling that’s emerging, checking out whether that is actually the feeling or is there another feeling behind that feeling?
And then when you actually feel the feeling that is the feeling, then it can be digested. And that’s what I think is acceptance. And that is what changes people and makes their emotional experience much richer, and therefore makes the thing that perhaps you’re trying to address in the podcast – happiness – be real rather than synthetic.
Bidisha (8:56): What do you mean by synthetic? Do you mean just straight-up fake?
Susie Orbach (9:00): Yeah, I mean, the difference between chicken stock and MSG. That’s what I mean: something that’s totally a one-note Johnny. I don’t want to be going into a shop and be told to have a great day – I want to be having the day that I’m having. And I think that’s part of covering up in our culture; there is so much distress, there’s so much inequality, there’s so much pain, and at the same time, there’s this neoliberal notion that we all should be ever so happy and ever so “have a great day”. And I just find that totally and utterly objectionable.
Bidisha (9:35): Jeff Brazier, let’s come back to resolve for a moment. Looking back on the journey you’ve been on, starting with childhood right through to now, can you pinpoint moments of resolve that actually worked for you, times that you came out of your habitual thought patterns and actually made changes?
Jeff Brazier (9:52): I think it’s when your back is literally to the wall, isn’t it? I think that’s when resolve is absolutely necessary, because it gets you through, it sits beyond that; that’s the frustrating thing, I think, sometimes, is that we typically don’t know when to switch that resolve off and start actually feeling again. And if we did, then we’d probably have far less to unravel.
There were times when I needed to be a number of things. And I just didn’t have anyone to turn around and say, “Right, you can stop being withdrawn now because the danger has passed.”
I can think of situations in childhood when you know, my stepdad and my mum had a very terrible relationship, to be honest. Two young people trying their best but just getting it wrong in many respects. And it was not a great environment to grow up in. So you spend a lot of that time sort of fairly scared, which then in adult life leads to really being overly respectful of authority of men.
If we knew when to switch these things off and the threat had passed, then I guess we’re gonna use these coping strategies throughout the rest of our life, aren’t we? Until I guess it’s through therapy that you learn that right, okay, I don’t need to be that way. I don’t need to be particularly mindful. I don’t need to use positivity as a shield, to protect myself from feelings that I don’t want to have to deal with, because they trigger memories of my childhood. So it’s a bit of a minefield, that.
Susie Orbach (10:51): I mean, I think positivity in the way that you’re describing it, Jeff, is actually having your alarm system turned to high the whole time. It isn’t positivity: behind that positivity is alarm, I got to watch out. And being able to manage, not being in watch-out mode, in relation to oneself and in relation to one’s environment, is the thing that allows one to then fold in fear or grief or vulnerability, as well as enthusiasm and be in the present.
Jeff Brazier (11:16): Yeah, I certainly feel for having four years of psychotherapy, now that I guess I’ve learned what is a threat and what isn’t. And the truth is, there’s very little threat, and there probably hasn’t been for some years in my adult life.
It’s helped me to kind of realign the right kind of pressure, the right kind of expectations as well. It’s an easier existence. And I wish I knew that it existed when I was younger. But I guess that sometimes you have to have these experiences to be able to one day feel like you’ve learned the lessons and then be able to adopt all of these lessons to have the kind of life that you want.
Bidisha (12:55): Susie Orbach, Jeff has described all of this with such clarity and articulacy. It makes me want to ask you how important to resolve is self-awareness, being aware of “Is this really happening?” or “Am I replaying something that’s happening in my head, but not in reality?” Not everyone has the capacity to do that, do they?
Susie Orbach (12:17): I think using the word ‘resolve’ or the concept of resolve and unpacking it is what’s important. So you can be pushing yourself down with resolve. “I will stand here at the sink for the next ten minutes until the dishes are done.” That’s a perfectly normal form of resolve, right? Or you could, “I will not feel what I’m supposed to be feeling” – that’s a brutal form. Or you can say, “Okay, what the hell am I feeling? This is difficult for me and I don’t feel so good this moment.” And then through that recognition, which I think is what we’re trying to talk about, one is on one’s own side, and one is resolved to try and understand oneself and take care of oneself.
Bidisha (12:58): That’s exactly it. You absolutely articulated what was in my head. But it also goes back to what Jeff had been saying about when your back’s against the wall, when you’ve suffered so much in such a repetitive way that you really are done, even with the suffering. And you say to yourself, “I refuse to do this to myself again.” Maybe the next step is coming to see you, Susie!
Susie Orbach (13:24): I don’t know so much about that! But I don’t want people to be in so much agony that their back’s against the wall. But that is, all of us have different backs against the wall. And I think maybe Jeff would agree with this, is that the more you become self-reflective and self-aware and are in the present of your life as opposed to living out your historical patterns, the back against the wall comes up less and you recognise it as okay, I’m doing something that’s not in my interest here. And I want to change this.
Jeff Brazier (13:58): All I’d add to that for me again, relating it to my myself, is that it gives you a sense of scale. So instead of needing to use the usual resolve, you actually realise that it’s okay, you can just feel. And that will bring about the outcome that you need; you can trust the fact that feeling was always an option, and that that will take you to where you need to be.
Bidisha (13:22): Jeff, I have a last question for you, it’s a very simple one. It is: What’s your happy place? What makes you feel happy?
Jeff Brazier (14:29): I think it needs to be like a day like today where I choose to get up really early, I choose to meditate, I choose to read a few chapters of a book that I’m enjoying. I spend time with my children, I socialise with people, and it’s just a balance. I love the word ‘balance’. It’s really a word not often valued enough, I don’t think. Yeah, to have a balance of all things that I think humans need in order to be happy, whatever that is.
Bidisha (14:51): Jeff, thank you very much indeed. Susie Orbach, what’s your happy place? What makes you happy?
Susie Orbach (16:07): I don’t really have a happy place; I have moments of recognising that I’m feeling really content and it might be with friends, it might be around food, it might be with my grandkids. It might be doing a piece of intellectual work. It might be just walking in the street. It’s not a happy place. It’s a feeling.
Bidisha (15:16): Susie Orbach and Jeff Brazier. Happiness might not be a place, but somewhere I always feel good is at the gym. And I’m not the only one. In there nearly every day is coach Leah Dunthorne, who’s trained elite athletes from their first competitions all the way to the Olympics. With her is the British 60-metre indoor hurdling champion Yasmin Miller, who carried on training even during lockdown. Yasmin’s on a break right now, but she told me about her first turning point, when she went from being a sports-mad girl to a budding professional athlete.
Yasmin Miller (15:02): I never thought I’d compete within sport at such a high level; I just did it for fun. It’s only when I was 16 years old, then I started representing Great Britain. That’s when I was thinking, “This is actually getting quite serious now.”
Bidisha (16:06): I love that you mention fun, because I wanted to, in a weird way, break down the experience of actually having fun for sport. Because when you speak to people who aren’t sporty it sounds like hard work to them. What is the buzz?
Yasmin Miller (16:19): The buzz, I’d probably say for me is when I actually reach my goal, but also training is a real buzz, like, honestly, training with Leah, it literally is so fun. Because there’s moments in training where it’s pretty difficult. There’s been moments in training where I literally feel like giving up.
Leah Dunthorne (16:37): Think about keeping tall, Yas. Putting toes up. Nice. And then let’s switch it around, we’re gonna go hamstring walks.
Bidisha (16:54): You mentioned moments in training where you just want to give up. Do you keep that desire to yourself? Or do you actually say, “That’s it. I’m gonna go for a walk around the block – I can’t take this any more.”
Yasmin Miller (17:04): No, I keep it to myself, keep it to myself. I actually keep it to myself! I know that if I don’t do it, that could be like a tenth of a second in a race. So that is literally what motivates me. And that is actually what made me realise I needed a break as well, because I’m normally so driven, and so motivated and I’m not just going to do it half-heartedly,
Bidisha (17:27): You’re talking in terms of tenths of a second. And that that’s what it boils down to, the difference between, I don’t know, qualifying or not qualifying, getting a medal or not getting a medal. Knowing that it comes down to a kind of hair’s-breadth difference, how do you not completely explode with anxiety?
Yasmin Miller (17:45): This is what I was saying about, even though there’s things I don’t want to do, I know that if I don’t do them, that could be a tenth loss for me.
Leah Dunthorne (17:57): And then up, and then we’re gonna go into walking lunge, so reaching arms up, dropping into lunge – nice and solid in the bottom position – reaching up, driving through. Perfect.
Bidisha (18:10): If you have a field of elite athletes, all of whom are really performing at the same level, the one who wins, is it that they somehow have a mental edge over the others?
Leah Dunthorne (18:20): At that level, the psychological side of it is absolutely huge because, you know, in terms of the times, often they’re quite similar in a lot of events. And I think it’s really about how you can control or channel your emotions to allow your body to kind of do what it’s capable of doing.
If you look at a lot of the best performers, they have this ability to almost switch off the sort of chatter that they’re experiencing in their brain and achieve this kind of flow state where their body is just working without really too much conscious thought. And you see it, you know, if you watch Roger Federer playing at his best or Usain Bolt running at his best, where the movement’s happening unconsciously, and because it’s so well practised, their body’s just able to do what it’s capable of.
Bidisha (19:07): When you’re not selected, what’s your reaction? What do you say to yourself and how do you get yourself back up to doing it all over again?
Yasmin Miller (19:14): Back in 2017, when that happened, I was fuming. I’ll just be honest, I was fuming. I wasn’t happy. And I literally was like, how much more can I basically take of this as well. Because before the Commonwealth Games, there was the Indoor Championships and I needed 8.15 seconds to go. This is the 60-metre hurdles, and I ran 8.16 seconds, and I just missed out by one person. So that was a really tough year.
Bidisha (19:44): Would you call that your rock bottom in your athletic career?
Yasmin Miller (19:45): Yeah, definitely. I was so angry. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t happy. That specific year just really, really crushed me. Just no, it was it was really tough, actually, because I was so close.
Bidisha (19:59): But the fact is that you did pick yourself up – 2017 was a number of years ago. What was the process of getting right back into the field again?
Yasmin Miller (20:08): Start seeing a sports psychologist. She did help me quite a lot to be able to pick myself back up, but then also I just started getting older and I realised that you can be in such a bubble with athletics, that life is greater than you realise when you’re in it.
Leah Dunthorne (20:29): Nice. Let’s bring the hips a little bit lower, Yas, when you, when you walk out. So find that straight line through your body – perfect. Yeah, let’s go, one more.
Bidisha (20:28): How do you handle the difference between those high points and then the low point. So you win the championships, it’s going great, then we enter lockdown. How did you manage to make yourself even go out there when it’s getting dark at four o’clock in the afternoon and train by yourself?
Yasmin Miller (20:57): I actually kept dragging my boyfriend to come with me to keep me motivated. That’s not even a lie. I got him timing me over the hurdles with a stopwatch. I needed somebody there because it was getting quite tough.
Leah Dunthorne (21:20): Yas couldn’t access a gym at that point. So we were doing, Yas was in her little park opposite her flat, mostly with lots of like, two-year-olds and three-year-olds in the background, copying all her movements.
Bidisha (21:21): When you have an athlete who you’re working with who’s really at rock bottom and beginning to internalise the message that “this is it – I can’t do it”, how do they come back from that? Is it the ones who were like great pop stars: they have incredible self-belief, or is it a matter of small tactics? For example, I once saw Serena Williams muttering to herself in the middle of a match and it turned out that she was reciting ‘Phenomenal Woman’, the poem by Maya Angelou, as a motivational tool.
Leah Dunthorne (21:51): I love that. I mean, I think some people will perhaps have innately learned it. And a lot of athletes will work with the sports psychologist to create strategies and self-talk.
Leah Dunthorne (22:06): Think about stretching up through the arms; no, pretty good still. Yeah, let’s see if we can get those toes a little bit higher. Beautiful. She’s still got it.
Bidisha (22:21): We’re all getting restless ’cos, of course, we are all elite athletes. So we’re going to go and run it off a little bit in the gym outside, which is actually where Leah and Yas trained.
It’s tempting to look at athletes and think, “Oh my God, they’re these super-beings; their lives must be completely fantastic; they’re the fittest anyone’s ever been.” We know the real picture is not so simple. How important is having mental health support and having balance in other areas of your life?
Yasmin Miller (22:47): What I’ve realised is as you grow older, this sport looks so glamorous from the outside. It’s actually quite tough, and it’s not as glamorous as you think it is. I mean, unless you’re like my friend Dina Asher-Smith, it’s pretty difficult to actually be able to stay at the top and be able to receive the funding. But don’t get me wrong, she’s actually amazing, so it’s understandable!
Bidisha (23:10): We’ve heard a little bit from Leah about how she works with you. What do you need from Leah? When you first met her, you thought okay, this person is going to do what for me?
Yasmin Miller (23:20): I really needed to get strong. That’s the main thing. And I think with Leah as well, what I’ve learned so much is she knows me well enough as a person, but also she really knows how to bring the best out in me as well, and that is so important for me because there’s so many coaches who just don’t care about you as a person. And I feel like Leah actually cares about not just only my performance, but as me as a person.
Bidisha (23:47): Final question, instinctive answer, what’s your happy place? What makes you happy?
Yasmin Miller (23:51): It’s standing on the podium with a gold medal, looking like I’m training hard, funny, but seeing money. It’s actually true! Yeah, probably those three things.
Bidisha (24:09): Yasmin Miller and Leah Dunthorne, inspiring and motivating us to reach our goals. Producer Debbie tried to persuade me to make a joke about Yas emotionally and literally getting over hurdles. But I refused. This is ‘Hello Happiness’, a podcast from Wellcome Collection that’s all about the positive emotions. And now, a happy thought. In each episode, we’ve invited one of our favourite people to take on the theme we’re exploring. So today, it’s artist and writer Scottee testing his resolve. He’s quite equivocal.
Scottee (24:44): I was asked to write you something cheery, to get you on your feet and leave you and me, in this moment, in togetherness, heads pointed towards the sky, perhaps some uplifting music behind my voice. And together, we skip off with resolution, resolve. That’s what the finale is supposed to look like.
The truth is, resolve comes at a cost, a price we’ve all paid to re-find a version of peace.
Resolve will always be squished and prodded, agitated by life – stuff, things, people. Resolve needs constantly to be addressed, reimagined, realigned, worked on. And that’s why I’m not sure I truly believe in the idea of resolve.
When you think of resolve, you might imagine a door closing, a box being put away, a file placed in a cabinet to be forgotten, a ticked box, the last chapter finished and the tattered sleeve of your imaginary book closed. But with our stuff, with those feelings we seek to resolve and place back on a shelf in a box or in that cabinet, well, I’m not sure resolution is real. I’m not sure, however much you look at it or say it, seek it, talk about it, pay people to listen to it, I’m not sure pure resolve will ever be bestowed on us. Or me.
I believe. I feel. I understand that resolve will never truly be offered to those of us watermarked by life, because the deed has already been done. The act cannot be retracted. The cut is now a scar. And we have to learn to live with it, unfortunately. There is no undoing.
You see, resolve is often packaged to us as being about happiness and jubilation. The inner olive branch doing the work as the children say, but what happened to us, for us to seek that resolve? What did we do, or what was done to us to make us seek out space less tempestuous? Grief, terror and pain happened, didn’t it? It left us with difficult feelings, experiences and ideas that we hope resolve will iron out for us, that resolve will hold for us.
Maybe we’re not really seeking resolve but what we need is respite. In that journey to resolve, there are bus stops. And the route you need to take is a long one. Let’s say it’s a night bus. Before resolve, we stop at recognition. Recovery follows soon after. And then we stop to rest. Then restoration, reconciliation and then, only then could resolve be an option.
Each of those stops take work – labour, energy and learning. The dictionary tells me resolve is “to settle or to find a solution to a problem or contentious matter. To decide firmly on a course of action, a formal resolution.” Where’s the jubilation in that? Where’s the joy in firm handshakes after contention?
If resolve is about being handed the privilege to reflect and understand then, instantly, I welcome guilt to the table, knowing I survived when others didn’t. If resolve is about standing still, then shame follows close behind to poke at me. But if we wanna decide that resolve is about peace without complacency, survival without guilt, shame without pain, then sign me up for it.
But you’re gonna have to talk to me about it. Show me the road in which I can walk, because there might be space and time between me and it, but is there resolution? Will I ever truly forgive and forget, when many of us are unable to forget?
This isn’t the cheery finale or the Hollywood ending, the moment on our feet we were looking for. But there is peace in knowing resolve isn’t expected of you, knowing it might never come. There is peace in knowing it’s okay to grieve. And that at some point, the tears may stop. If that’s resolve, then maybe I’m close to it.
But what I seek to resolve can never be unlocked, undone or covered over. It’s made me, it’s shaped me. And I’m actually a bit of all right. I’ve tried my best. And I’ll continue to do so.
Bidisha (30:06): Artist and writer Scottee. And if you want to hear and watch his best, follow him online. His handle is @ScotteeIsFat. What I’m learning is that resolve isn’t just about the individual healing themselves, completely and for ever. It’s about entire nations and peoples. It’s about generational trauma, and it’s a continual process of adjustment. My next two guests, Elif Shafak and Hassan Akkad, are both storytellers and activists, taking forward the idea of resolution from conflict, prejudice and assault. And just to warn you, Hassan will be talking about torture and abuse. Elif’s latest novel is about migration and regeneration, while Hassan’s memoir charts his journey from Syria to working on a Covid ward in a London hospital.
Hassan Akkad (31:00): I guess my story starts being just an English teacher in Damascus in Syria, where I’m from, and teaching gives me purpose. I love the career. I was a photographer as well, because I like documenting things. And then the peaceful uprising in Syria started 2011 and I naturally, with like other millions of Syrians, took to the streets to protest against the regime. And as a result, I got arrested by the secret police. I was detained and tortured and I think I hit rock bottom there in that detention centre, in that solitary confinement where I was captured for two weeks.
I left detention and then I was presented with a choice: I either leave or I die. So I left, decided to walk in the footsteps of millions of other refugees, so I did the journey across Europe. And because I like documenting, I filmed my whole journey. I made it to Britain, where I claimed asylum and I’ve been living here since 2016, still filming and taking pictures.
And then when the pandemic happened, I decided to take a job as a cleaner in a hospital in east London, in a Covid ward. While I was there, I had encountered some amazing things by the NHS staff, but I was also shocked by the level of injustice that took place while I was working there, when the government announced a bereavement scheme to protect migrant workers on the front line.
So technically, if a migrant is working at a hospital and they die, their family get indefinite leave to remain, which is the bare minimum, in my opinion. But the government decided to exclude hospital cleaners and porters and healthcare assistants, like the people that I was working with day to day.
So I decided to – because I believe in the power of a moving image, I believe in stories – I decided to do like a two-minute video and put it on Twitter, which eventually forced a government U-turn. And, yeah, that’s the outline of my story.
Bidisha (33:01): Elif Shafak, I want to take a key phrase from what Hassan’s just told us all about the power of stories: the importance of documenting, remembering, creating images. For me, as a reader of yours, I feel as if you have an ability to convey these huge themes, fundamental humanitarian themes. And yet they’re always folded down into the personal of the story, of the emotional trajectory of individuals. What is it about stories that has so much resonance?
Elif Shafak (33:36): I think that’s how I connect with the world since my childhood. And maybe it does go all the way back to my own upbringing. I was raised by two women: my mother and my grandmother. And it was a broken family in many ways. There were displacements. And I really thought life was very boring. I was a single child. So, to me real life was more boring, more limited, constricted, and I was much more interested in storyland.
It’s a very humbling experience, actually, both intellectually and perhaps spiritually, when you can become someone else for a few hours or for a few days, because we always take our own lives, our own truths for granted. But when you’re reading a story, you’re transported into someone else’s reality. And that’s, that’s a very good exercise for the mind. So I love stories.
Bidisha (34:30): Hassan, you mentioned your rock bottom: you were in solitary confinement. Why was that your rock-bottom moment? And then what happened after the rock-bottom moment, the turning point, the moment of resolve?
Hassan Akkad (34:48): I think I hit rock bottom, in that awful godforsaken solitary confinement cell, because I felt so alone. It was just very unfamiliar to me to be in a two-metre-square cell with blood splattered on the walls. And there were scribbles on the wall from people who have given up in the past. So I felt like two or three days after being in that cell, I started speaking to myself, I felt like I was genuinely losing my mind.
And I was also, I’ve never spoken about this publicly aside from the book, but I was also sexually assaulted in that cell by the prison guards. It destroyed me. Like, what, what happened destroyed me. And part of the torture, the psychological torture that they did was to come every day to the cell and tell me that I’m going to stay there for ever.
And I think I should say, like a trigger warning here, but I decided to kill myself, because I didn’t want to live in that cell. And I started strategising how to do it. And I tried. I’m so grateful right now that it didn’t work. But I came out of that experience a different person. I started looking at life in a different lens. Because I want to see some positive change in the world; I wanted to tell my story. And I want it to be honest, and I want it to be vulnerable, because I feel like there’s no shame in vulnerability. I feel like that vulnerability is the gateway to compassion.
As I told you, when I worked in the hospital, and I recorded myself speaking to the Prime Minister, where I came across as very vulnerable; I was shaking; I was, I was very emotional. But that, you know, that made like a tangible change instantly; it changed the lives of tens of thousands of people. And essentially, that’s what I want: I want to inspire people to take action.
Bidisha (36:47): Elif, I want to come to that action moment and drill down a little bit into the moment of resolve for your characters who have resolved to leave to rebuild a life. When does that decision happen? Is resolve about a big dramatic turning point? Or do we gain resolve by small, humble, incremental movements?
Elif Shafak (37:12): I think it could be either. You know, sometimes, of course, depending on the journeys that we go through, the stories that we experience, sometimes there are more dramatic or sudden turning points. And sometimes it is more incremental, gradual perhaps. And one thing that of course Hassan mentioned, this feeling of being voiceless is also so important in my in my work.
And I find it very paradoxical that in an age when we were promised, especially by tech optimists not that long ago, that we were all going to have an equal voice thanks to the proliferation of digital technologies, in a world like this, actually so many people, East and West, feel voiceless. We feel like our voices are unheard, our stories are untold. And it makes a big difference because when there are silences, those silences aggravate the existing inequalities, injustices and gaps between human beings. So stories do help us to connect and to build bridges.
Bidisha (38:14): Do you think that we’re in danger of losing our resolve? Something that I think about so often now is that whenever there are surveys of young people, instead of being incredibly optimistic for the future, a sense of fatalism is creeping in, as if they imagine that the future’s necessarily going to be worse for maybe inequality reasons or environmental reasons, or some other kind of apocalyptic, you-can’t-stop-it, negative scenario.
Elif Shafak (38:47): I think we’ve entered the age of pessimism, but I have a positive view on pessimism, to be honest. I think a heathy dose of pessimism is actually not a bad thing. Because it makes us more aware of what is going on and what is at stake. Of course, too much pessimism is not a good thing, and it is debilitating and it pulls us down. So we need to also find some dose of optimism, but all I’m trying to say is, it is okay to be a little bit pessimistic in an age like this, if it helps us to take, to be more engaged, to be more active.
What is not good, if there’s one emotion that worries me, it is the lack of all emotions, and that is numbness, the moment we become numb, indifferent, desensitised. The moment we stop caring about what’s going on in the world. I think that is the most dangerous threshold.
Bidisha (39:41): Hassan, your memoir is a story of fleeing and it’s extremely dramatic. It reads back almost like an adventure novel. You can’t believe that all these things happened to one person. Looking back on your own story, where have you shown resolve?
Hassan Akkad (39:56): It was most probably when we were doing the journey across Europe, to be honest. Not only was I doing that journey, that physical journey to get to my adopted home, which is London right now, but I was also trying to tell a story which for me, was equally important. Our voice was missing from the conversation during the refugee crisis.
There were people speaking on our behalf, and the level of misinformation, the level of misconceptions, was really high. And I think that fuelled my determination to keep on going, you know, to get to where I wanna get to and to tell that story. I didn’t want us to be shut out of this conversation, which is very important to us because it is about us. So I think yes, I mean that determination to continue, especially when our boat sank, it didn’t put me off, it didn’t discourage me from carrying on, because I wanted to get here and I wanted to, I wanted to be a part of the conversation.
Bidisha (40:57): My final question, Hassan, really simple: What makes you happy?
Hassan Akkad (41:02): Swimming. I am in love with swimming! Genuinely, find it very therapeutic because every time I am swimming, I don’t think about anything else. And another thing that makes me happy: when I see my friends doing amazing things. Like so many of my friends have hit rock bottom, and my family as well. So just seeing them, you know, being very successful in their adopted communities and getting really good jobs and falling in love and starting new families. Yeah, that makes me really happy.
Bidisha (41:34): Elif Shafak, what makes you happy?
Elif Shafak (41:38): You know, I hesitate because so many things make me happy, so many seemingly small things. And I really think the pandemic made us realise how crucial they are, how big, actually, they are – just the joy of spending time with your loved ones, walking in the park, sitting under a tree, hugging a tree, you know, being close to a tree.
Hassan Akkad (42:05): I love that you said hugging trees, Elif, because I do it and I thought I was a bit mad, so I’m glad that you do it as well!
Elif Shafak (42:10): I do it all the time!
Bidisha (42:12): Listen, I have to ask something ’cos you’re not the only two people who say that. When you hug a tree do you, do you, sorry, but do you get anything back?
Hassan Akkad (42:21): I genuinely do, I do. I feel this energy. I genuinely feel like there is something that I can’t explain but it makes me happy, so I continue to do it!
Bidisha (42:37): I think I know what we all need to do now, thanks to Hassan Akkad and Elif Shafak. But before you run off to your local park, read Elif’s latest novel ‘The Island of Missing Trees’ and Hassan’s memoir ‘Hope Not Fear’.
We’ve explored many different types of resolve in this episode and what I’m learning is that there’s no easy, definitive story about hitting rock bottom and making a triumphant recovery. It’s more subtle and incremental than that and it doesn’t just happen inside people. It happens between people and across societies and nations.
In the next episode, guest presenter Moya Lothian-McLean transports us to a rainforest for a period of tranquillity. And you’ve got until January 2022 to experience Wellcome Collection’s season ‘On Happiness’ and its free exhibitions, stories and events about joy and tranquillity.
I’m Bidisha and this has been ‘Hello Happiness’. I hope you enjoyed it as much as me and producer Debbie. Please subscribe, spread the word, tell your friends and family, and share it all.
‘Hello Happiness’ from Wellcome Collection is produced by Debbie Kilbride; sound design is by Micky Curling; original music by Sola and the Executive Producer is Natalie Coe.
I’m off to hug a tree, the cherry tree in the garden of my family home. I hope you visit your happy place in the coming days or do one thing that puts a smile on your face. Until we meet again for another episode of ‘Hello Happiness’.