The endurance and fragility of the human spirit

Primo Levi; what a human. I’m making my way through his Complete Works, and to them I will happily assign the highest accolade a book can get from a reader: It has changed me. I understand myself and I understand the nature of humanity more completely because of it. That’s not to say I’ve gained clarity and certainty. Oh no. I’m more confused and uncertain than ever. For example, consider these three passages from Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man. One:

“…this was the sense, not forgotten then or later: that precisely because the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts; that even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilisation. We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to almost certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength, for it is the last–the power to refuse our consent. So we must wash our faces without soap in dirty water and dry ourselves on our jackets. We must polish our shoes, not because the rules prescribe it but for dignity and propriety. We must walk erect, without dragging our feet, not in homage to Prussian discipline but to remain alive, to not begin to die.”

Profound, right? Now, this.

“Their life is short, but their number is endless; they, the Muselmanner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always the same, of non-men who march and labor in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to truly suffer. One hesitates to call them living; one hesitates to call their death death–in the face of it they have no fear, because they are too tired to understand. 
They crowd my memory with their faceless presence, and if I could encompass all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image, which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, head bowed and shoulders bent, on whose face and in whose eyes no trace of thought can be seen.”

And three:

“To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as to create one: it wasn’t easy, it wasn’t quick, but you Germans have succeeded. Here we are docile under your gaze. From our side you have nothing more to fear: no acts of revolt, no words of defiance, not even a look of judgement.”

“Many people are exposed to loss or potentially traumatic events at some point in their lives, and yet they continue to have positive emotional experiences and show only minor and transient disruptions in their ability to function. Unfortunately, because much of psychology’s knowledge about how adults cope with loss or trauma has come from individuals who sought treatment or exhibited great distress, loss and trauma theorists have often viewed this type of resilience as either rare or pathological. The author challenges these assumptions by reviewing evidence that […] resilience in the face of loss or potential trauma is more common than is often believed…
A review of the available research on loss and violent or life-threatening events clearly indicates that the vast majority of individuals exposed to such events do not exhibit chronic symptom profiles and that many and, in some cases, the majority show the type of healthy functioning suggestive of the resilience trajectory… Although chronic PTSD certainly warrants great concern, the fact that the vast majority of individuals exposed to violent or life-threatening events do not go on to develop the disorder has not received adequate attention… It is well-established that many exposed individuals will evidence short-lived PTSD or subclinical stress reactions that abate over the course of several months or longer (i.e., the recovery pattern)… Those who cope well with violent or life-threatening events are often viewed in terms of extreme heroism. However justified, this practice tends to reinforce the misperception that only rare individuals with “exceptional emotional strength” are capable of resilience.”

Rolf Degen—the author, on whose Twitter account I saw the excerpt—summarises it as so: “The vast majority of people do not break under traumatic experiences. Resilience is the default, not the rare exception.”

So, who do I believe? Do I believe the uplifting Levi, or the despairing Levi? Do I believe the affirming insights of George Bonanno? Is there within human nature an inextinguishable spark, a bastion of kindness and goodwill that, no matter the external circumstance, can never be extinguished? Or is human nature a candle left outside in the wild, put out by the lightest of winds on the fairest of days?