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Photo: Mark Naison.
Fordham students who helped launch the Bronx COVID-19 Oral History Project, stand with the project’s faculty adviser and an artist interviewed for the project outside the Crab Shanty Restaurant in the Bronx on May 20, 2021.

It’s hard to predict how anyone will respond to a stressful situation. A tightly controlled person may completely lose it; an anxious individual may find a reservoir of calm. As Harry Bruinius reports at the Christian Science Monitor, there were surprises like that in lockdown. What was clearly a stressful time had an unexpected positive side when kindness and resilience shone through the darkness.

“When Bethany Fernandez first began to document oral histories in the Bronx during the pandemic,” Bruinius writes, “her own life was ‘chaotic.’ … But the past year and a half has become, almost in a strange way, a time of profound personal growth and self-discovery, says Ms. Fernandez, a lifelong resident of the Bronx, a borough of New York City.

“The communities surrounding her were among the most afflicted in the country, and they were being documented relentlessly in the news. But when she decided to join a group of fellow students at Fordham University to launch the Bronx COVID-19 Oral History Project, she found a reality not fully captured in the news, she says.

“ ‘In moments like these, a cynical person might think,”Oh, people are going to be selfish” – resources are scarce, survival of the fittest, or whatever,’ says Ms. Fernandez. ‘But no, it was the complete opposite.’ …

“Far from tales of woe, in fact, she and the five others in the project found their subjects again and again using a particular word to describe their experiences: resilience.

“Resilience in the face of hardship and trauma has always been a part of the human story. But during the past few decades, researchers have probed more deeply into what some scholars call a ‘psychological immune system’ that enables many people to respond to even the worst of situations and to recover from their resulting traumas. …

“ ‘If there is a silver lining that could come out of this, it would be that people are understanding that while the negatives scream at you, the positives – the resilience you can always find in people – these are only whispers,’ says Ken Yeager, director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program at The Ohio State University in Columbus.

“Human beings are wired to take particular note of the dangers that surround them and even focus on stories of trauma and fear. ‘The fight-or-flight response actually helps the species as a whole to survive, but it does nothing to make you happy,’ Dr. Yeager says. ‘It does nothing to help you build resilience.’

“The Bronx COVID-19 Oral History Project tells this story.

“[According to] Alison Rini, a senior from New Jersey studying English and Italian … ‘It was such a surprising experience, finding these examples of people describing their resilience in the midst of such hard times – in the Bronx, in particular. …

“ ‘The pandemic has been a test of the global psychological immune system, which appears more robust than we would have guessed,’ wrote scholars Lara Aknin, Jamil Zaki, and Elizabeth Dunn in the Atlantic. ‘In order to make sense of these patterns, we looked back to a classic psychology finding: People are more resilient than they themselves realize.’

“The authors emphasize that such broad trends should not erase ‘the immense pain, overwhelming loss, and financial hardships’ so many have faced over the past year and a half, especially disadvantaged populations. …

“ ‘But [the] pandemic holds its own lessons,’ they wrote. ‘Human beings are not passive victims of change but active stewards of our own well-being.’ …

“In what Ms. Fernandez calls one of her most memorable interviews, the owner of a Bronx restaurant described how she lost nearly 85% of her business and struggled to stay afloat after laying off most of her employees.

“Though the restaurant specializes in Puerto Rican and American cuisine, the owner, Maribel Gonzalez, kept the original name of the restaurant she bought 16 years ago, South of France. …

“Describing herself as a person of faith, Ms. Gonzalez said she had always offered her local community a free buffet every Wednesday. During the pandemic, as she and one or two employees struggled to keep the restaurant open, she kept that tradition alive, providing a free buffet at the height of the shutdown, even if only for an hour or two a week.

“ ‘You know, in all of this devastation, there are also a lot of blessings, because you find that you’re more resilient, that you’re stronger than you may have thought,’ Ms. Gonzalez told the project. She said her restaurant provided hundreds of meals for front-line health workers in partnership with others, supported by donations from a GoFundMe page.

“ ‘When you need to lug that 50 pound bag because you have to make whatever money you can, because maybe some of it can go to feed families that can’t afford it, you find the strength, you get the stamina, you find the chutzpah, if you will, to lift that bag, because there are so many depending on it – myself, my business, my future, the future of my employees, and those of my community.’ …

“The project had a profound effect on Ms. Fernandez as she wrestled with the challenges in her own life. ‘It was the one thing that stood out to me, the generosity that was shown all over, even throughout the time of the pandemic,’ she says. ‘Because when you see how resources are limited, when you’re being stretched out by work, by family obligations, by life and all of that, even with all the suffering going on, people were willing to give, people were willing to offer compassion and kindness.’ ”

More at the Monitor, here.

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