Resilience is a popular concept in social psychology circles these days. It’s been the topic of a slew of articles in recent years, including a perceptive 2016 piece in The New Yorker entitled “How People Become Resilient.” According to this article, our perceptions of what is traumatic shape our reactions to stressors in our lives. Even a terrible tragedy, then, may not affect every person in the same way. For one person, the tragedy wounds deeply and causes trauma; another person may manage to make sense of the event and preserve “what psychologists call an ‘internal locus of control,’” the belief that you yourself, and not your circumstances, are in control of your life.
Alexandra Bergson, the protagonist of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, is the epitome of resilience: “a tall, strong girl” who “walked rapidly and resolutely, as if she knew exactly where she was going and what she was going to do next.” Life on the Nebraska prairie in the late nineteenth century is desperately difficult, and Alexandra, the eldest child in her family, is entrusted by her dying father with the fate of their homestead and the cultivation of the land. Alexandra’s resilience shines forth in Cather’s story; here are some valuable lessons in resilience gleaned from this literary heroine’s example.
01. Rather than being something fearsome, hardship can embolden us.
The first of her four siblings and the only female among them, Alexandra is entrusted with the care of the Bergson land. She possesses “an Amazonian fierceness,” while also being a deep thinker. Her father appreciates Alexandra’s investment in the land. As the book describes it, “Before Alexandra was twelve years old she had begun to be a help to [her father], and as she grew older he had come to depend on her resourcefulness and good judgment . . . It was Alexandra who read the papers and followed the markets, and who learned by the mistakes of their neighbors.”
And it is Alexandra who insists that they not sell the land and move back east after three terrible years of drought. Her brothers are discouraged, their neighbors are leaving in droves, and her idea of borrowing money and mortgaging their homestead to buy more land presents a risk her family is hesitant to take. Yet Alexandra demonstrates an ability to see beyond current circumstances that her brothers do not possess. Responding to their concern that people will think they’re crazy for staying on seemingly unproductive farmland, Alexandra insists, “The right thing is usually just what everybody don’t do . . . We ought to do more than they do, and see further ahead.” As a result, her family eventually prospers and the Bergsons become well-established landowners.
From Alexandra, I’ve learned that what is difficult in life can be meaningful. She is able to hold on in the midst of painful situations—her father’s death, the failure of their crops, the dissent of her brothers—reminding me that I, too, can work through periods of transition and seemingly unprofitable times. When I think of Alexandra’s example, I realize that my current job search and decisions about what city to live in have value and meaning. Alexandra’s clear-headed decision-making also encourages me to take risks—to consider whether staying in my current job and living situation would actually be good for me or is just comfortable. To struggle is to grow.
02. Love requires cultivation.
Alexandra’s relationships are important to her. The way that Alexandra loves is not a head-over-heels love affair; it’s deeply felt, undergirded with calm, and maintained over a span of years. When Alexandra is around 24, her best friend Carl Lindstrom moves back east with his family because they have become discouraged by the drought years. When Carl tells her that they are leaving, he also expresses concern that he was never really able to help Alexandra, who so often helped his family as they struggled on the land. But it is clear that Alexandra values Carl for himself when she responds lovingly, “It’s by understanding me, and the boys, and mother, that you’ve helped me. I expect that is the only way one person ever really can help another. I think you are about the only one that ever helped me.”
This friendship is reignited almost fifteen years later when Carl comes back to Nebraska. It is clear he loves Alexandra, but feels inadequate. He has not been successful back east, and he wants to be able to offer something to Alexandra. Following another painful leave-taking, he comes back to her again after the tragic death of one of her brothers. Though Alexandra has been deeply wounded by losing her brother, Carl’s return offers Alexandra sweetness in the midst of suffering. She is not afraid to admit her need for Carl and to lean on him for support in this time of sorrow.
Alexandra reminds me that loving people and places can come slowly. In the last five years, I’ve moved to a new city. Over time, this city has begun to feel a bit more like home. Nonetheless, maintaining and cultivating relationships with old friends who are far away is difficult, and life is sometimes lonely. From Alexandra, I’ve learned that friendships can be deepened even in the midst of physical separation. What’s necessary is maintaining ties, an easier task now than it was in Alexandra’s time. I can write a letter, phone a friend, or start a Google Hangout. By investing in others, both near and far away, I can grow my relationships.
03. Beauty can be a balm in the midst of sorrow.
Just as she loves others profoundly, Alexandra’s love for the land is a deep-felt calm that sometimes bursts forth in “an exalted serenity.” Even before the land begins to be prosperous, Alexandra feels its potential: “She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. Under the long, shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.” Unlike her brothers, who sometimes feel like indentured servants to the land, Alexandra sees herself as being in a relationship with the land, as if a part of herself is reflected in it.
The beauty of the land draws Alexandra closer to it in times of sorrow. After the death of her brother, Alexandra tells Carl, “There is a great peace here . . . and freedom.” Alexandra’s taking comfort in the beauty of the land reminds me that even in times of disappointment, pain, and loss, there can be beauty. Last summer, a woman who was like a grandmother to me passed away. In the midst of the sorrow of losing this important figure in my life, there was beauty in seeing a church full of people who loved her and the serenity of the place where she was buried. The beauty of nature—flowers, trees, and even snow—have pulled me out of myself during times of stress, allowing me to see that little sparks of joy can exist even when one is flooded with pain. For Alexandra, “it is in the soil that she expresses herself best” and finds her deepest comfort; but beauty can be found not only in nature, but also in the kind words of a friend, a thoughtful note, or a simple hug. Alexandra reminds me to savor these moments.
In reading about Alexandra Bergson, I’ve discovered that resilience is a multi-faceted concept. It is an acceptance of both sorrow and joy and an ability to see beyond the present moment. Alexandra’s life is extremely difficult, and the cultivation of the land requires her whole life. Alexandra’s resilience means that she does not shy away from suffering and is aware of goodness in the midst of pain: she is a true heroine.