In late October, 2016 I joined a team of Americans who flew to Haiti to build homes, hand out food, and sort donations and supplies through an organization, BeLikeBrit Foundation. Each afternoon and evening I was able to talk, play, and dance with the 66 children who call BeLikeBrit their home. The opportunity put me in touch with some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met: people overflowing with hope, humility, gratitude, and an abundance of smiles and laughter.
I was only in the country for one week and, although I have continued to read about its history and its people, I do not presume to be a scholar on the personality make-up of an entire population. The following, then is a first-glance summary of inspiration and perceived strengths witnessed in glimpses and moments during this one week. As I sit down to write this blog, however, I am struck by a dilemma: how to portray a country and its people through a lens of the many strengths that help them survive, without appearing to use a rose-colored filter on that lens. In reality, the many strengths of the population are only matched by the repeated devastation visited on this small island country.
Haiti is the only country in the world whose creation evolved from a successful slave revolt in 1804, allowing the slave population to break free from France’s colonial oppression. Not too surprisingly, the revolution was not well-received by world powers, a fact that, throughout its 200+ year history, has often left Haiti both isolated from, and obstructed by, these world powers. Simultaneously, Haitians have struggled to endure the reigns of brutal political leaders at home.
As author Paul Fallon stated, “The true spirit of the country lies in the interstices of its inconsistency, its opposition to the rest of the world.”
As if the sociopolitical climate wasn’t enough, adversity continues to test the Haitian people: in 2008 when devastating floods led to “one of the worst disasters in history,” in 2010 when a powerful earthquake killed 220,000, injured 330,000, and left 1.5 million homeless, and immediately before my visit, in October 2016 by Hurricane Matthew, which has killed at least 1,000 persons and left even more Haitians homeless.
Even in the best of times, Haiti struggles to meet the needs of its citizens. Effects from these natural catastrophes still exist in a country where infrastructure is limited, poverty is rampant, and disease is ravaging.
It is the resilience of this small country and its 9 million inhabitants that have taught me the power that character strengths can have for each individual, without the need for fancy lexicon or interpretation of challenging feelings. It reminds me that character strengths live in us all and are most likely to lead to happiness or at least contentment as long as we strive to use the strengths that feel “best” to us. Strengths are within us and rise to the occasion as we call upon them.
The character strengths that surely ascended during the revolution over two centuries ago continue until this day, giving Haitians a flexibility of spirit and hardy resolve which permit them to rise above the ankle deep water, the rubble, the disease, and to find a path continually to move forward. If a country’s population can be defined by a unique pattern of strengths, I would guess that the strength pattern for Haiti’s top strengths would include optimism, humility, and gratitude.
Perhaps the most striking character strength evident among a majority of Haitians each day is unadulterated hope, or optimism, reflected in the belief that a problem of today will be at least changed, if not fully resolved, by tomorrow. Unlike pessimists, people who are optimistic are more likely to interpret events as external, unstable and specific. As author Fallon points out, most of the Western world looks for cause and effect; Haitians on the other hand, are inclined to see events as isolated and idiosyncratic. They are not likely to see the devastation in their country as anyone’s fault or as predictable. However, whereas most optimists see their lives as within their control, in what appears to be a nuanced twist of optimism, Haitians seem not to view events within their control: adverse events are caused by angry spirits, or God, or bad luck. This seemingly allows them to remove themselves from the path of self-recrimination while supporting their enduring faith that that tomorrow will be better. In Haiti, happiness arises not from having things but from having hope.
Upon reflection of my time spent working with people from Haiti, I am also aware of their remarkable humility – an acceptance of their own limitations, whether physical, knowledge-based, or language-driven. I’m not sure that I have ever worked with a group of people who were so wonderfully humble. As I worked side-by-side building homes with a group of Haitians, it seemed quite evident that they felt they had nothing to prove. If one was too short to reach a nail on a roof, that person stepped back and let another, taller worker complete the task. Alternatively, when they saw us struggling to unbend a nail, or hold a board straight, they quietly stepped to our side, corrected our errors without gloating, and allowed us to get back to work. Their willingness to laugh at their own frailties and mistakes opened the door for the rest of us to admit our own, leading to a true spirit of teamwork and collaboration without defense or conflict. Never has the value of humility carried so much weight.
One would be remiss in characterizing the strengths of the Haitian people, if gratitude was not mentioned. As defined by VIA Institute on Character, when we use the strength of gratitude, we are aware of the good things that happen to us and never take them for granted. Haitians are well-versed in both stages of gratitude, both recognizing when something good has come their way, and being aware that the origin of that “goodness” is outside themselves. Whether through a quick, open smile, a humble bow of the head, or a full-on hug, gratitude is expressed to others repeatedly each day. Perhaps it is in fact their humility that allows the Haitians that I met to graciously accept so much, without shame or obligation. It opened a door for me of understanding of the power that gratitude can have on the recipient, allowing us to truly feel that our work was of benefit and was appreciated by so many. In a population in which 40% are under 15, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, one would expect a sadness, or despair, or at minimum a beseeching quality in interactions with the children. But in fact, although they have nothing, the youth openly and delightedly welcome what comes their way, without becoming attached to the outcome, allowing for the characteristic vicissitudes of their lives.
Needless to say, my visit to Haiti had a strong and lasting impact on me. I expected this. What I did not predict was the view the visit gave me into the far-reaching impact that character strengths can have on the unity and vigor of an entire population: surviving tragedy, devastation and dictatorships through hope, humility and gratitude. No time like the present to learn this lesson here at home.