Photo: The author’s mother. Photo provided by the author.
In the stillness of the quiet, if we listen, we can hear the whisper of the heart giving strength to weakness, courage to fear, hope to despair. —Howard Thurman
On Dec. 29, 2019, I turned 50. As I gathered with family and friends to acknowledge this milestone, I was filled with lament and hope. It was not the ecstatic moment I dreamed it would be. This was not where I had expected to be in life. I had not achieved or accomplished all the personal and professional goals I had envisioned. In fact, I was just getting started when I had the wind knocked out of me. I even considered not celebrating my birthday. I was still grieving, grasping for whispers of hope from God. I felt a deep sense of loss and profound sorrow. Yet when the clock struck midnight ushering in my own new decade, tears filled my eyes as I whispered, “I made it.” In that moment I experienced perhaps the most important and crucial characteristics we can have in life: resilience and hope.
Resilience has been defined as “the ability to bounce back from adversity, frustration and misfortune…” (Janet Ledesma), “the developable capacity to rebound or bounce back from adversity, conflict and failure or even positive events, progress, and increased responsibility” (Fred Luthans), “a stable trajectory of healthy functioning after a highly adverse event” (George Bonanno) and “the capacity of a dynamic system to adapt successfully” (Ann Masten).
As I turned 50, I was “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9, NIV).
Somehow there was still hope.
I gave myself permission to celebrate that I had made it through 50 years of trials, tribulations and tests as a biracial woman born and raised in New York City. I recognized I had endured one of the most painful, debilitating and humiliating years of my life with grace, tenacity and agency. I spent years as a social worker, mentor, professor and minister. I built my ministry theology, counseling philosophy and educational pedagogy around the concepts of resilience and hope. But now I wondered how I could continue to muster the strength to model resilience and hope to my students, clients and mentees.
I would be given a test of my faith that “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:1-5, NIV).
On Jan. 15, 2019, on the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I was informed that my tenure-track contract as assistant professor of social work at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., my beloved alma mater, would end on May 15, 2019. I struggled to maintain my dignity, agency and resolve concerning my purpose, passion and path. Less than a month later, while walking along the Slave Trail in Richmond, Va., on the morning of June 6, my brother shared the shocking news that my beloved mother, Ethel Miriam Zeager Pannell, had unexpectantly departed from this earth. My mother was the wind beneath my wings, and my institution was the foundation of my higher education journey that gave me the building blocks to reach greater heights in my ministerial calling and chosen profession. To experience these life-changing circumstances almost simultaneously shook the core of my faith, identity and security. As much as I mourned, I could not change those circumstances. I felt like my life no longer had meaning. I prayed to God for healing and listened for whispers of hope to strengthen my spirit. In my efforts to recall how to embody resilience, I turned to my scholarship, my faith, my Harlem community and the exemplary life and faithful witness of my mother.
I remembered reading in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning that “we must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed.”
I recalled the words of Paulo Freire that “it is imperative that we maintain hope, even when the harshness of reality may suggest the opposite….Hopelessness is but hope that has lost its bearings.”
I remembered that I came from a resilient community of people who have survived and thrived through layers of social disparities, shattered dreams and personal loss. I could hear Ms. Pope, one of the “mothers” of Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church in Harlem, encourage me to “keep on keeping on.” And my elementary school teacher, Mrs. Williams, said with resolve that “where there is a will, there is a way.”
Above all, I heard my mother’s sweet smiling voice full of faith and fortitude saying, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). And I recalled her life. She was the epitome of resilience and hope.
In their article “The Impact of Hope and Resilience on Multiple Factors in Neurosurgical Patients,” researchers Devika Duggal, Amanda Sacks-Zimmerman and Taylor Liberta write: “Hope and resilience are both stable, psychological traits that can act as protective factors against adversity. Hope is an optimistic attitude of mind based on an expectation of positive outcomes.”
My mother overcame countless obstacles and tribulations. She carried the gospel of Jesus Christ across cultural barriers and created bridges from Elizabethtown, Pa., to Washington, D.C., to Harlem, N.Y. She created a path of light and hope wherever she went. One of her favorite quotes was, “It is better to light a candle then curse the darkness.”
My mother was a woman of deep faith, and so am I. Parker Palmer states that “the deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure; the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair; the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring: these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings. If we refuse to hold them in the hopes of living without doubt, despair and pain, we also find ourselves living without faith, hope and love.” As I continue my healing process, I will keep listening for whispers of hope, recalling resilience and striving to create an optimistic path of purpose wherever I go.
Melody M. Pannell is founder and CEO of the Destiny’s Daughters Leadership Institute LLC and serves as chair of the board of The Mennonite, Inc.