The term antifragility was introduced into the English language by Nassim Taleb when writing his book of the same name which appeared in 2013.   I was somewhat chuffed to learn about this concept as it verified an observation I had made some 50 years ago.

My Observation

It was in the early days of my marriage.  Divorce was not nearly as common as it is today. Despite this fact, I did have within my social circle, sufficient acquaintances who had decided to terminate their marriage. I remember giving some thought to the fate of children whose parents divorced when they were still young.   I had noticed that the children of my friends who emerged from a family of divorce were either better adjusted psychologically than the average child, or had a greater number of psychological difficulties than the most of their peers.

An example of Antifragility

How does this relate to antifragility, you may ask?  To understand this term, we need first to understand that things such as glass objects are fragile, while articles made of steel are strong and robust.  But, what do we call something which grows in strength when offered a series of moderate setbacks?   This is what antifragility is all about.   Interestingly enough Taleb recognised this condition in the banking system when he was a successful investor and studied the ups and downs of the stock market.

Psychological and Physiological Antifragility

I am, however, more interested in how the term anti-fragility helps us to understand both psychological behaviour and the physiology of the body.  Small struggles of the mind and body tend to make us stronger.   If your muscles are not used they become weaker.  If our muscles are overused they are damaged.  But if our muscles are used a little bit more each day, or each week , they then grow stronger.  The same can be said of the immune system.  A few germs in the environment are necessary for the development of immunity.

Returning to my Early Experience

To return to my observation of many years ago, I now have an interpretation for this early hypothesis.  If the amount of stress of their parent’s divorce is handled optimally, the children can emerge with greater resilience; they become antifragile.  However, if the stress of the divorce procedure is beyond the capacity of the child to process, then that child will suffer emotional damage.

Resilience and Antifragility

Linda Graham is an American psychologist who has written a brilliant book on resilience. She describes resilience as the learned capacity to cope with adversity. Developing resilience over one’s lifespan illustrates the concept of anti-fragility. Graham in her latest weekly blog was referenced a book written by Johnathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff called the Coddling of the American Mind In this book, the authors document how child-rearing practices in America are overprotecting growing children. Parents are not allowing them to experience the challenges which have been a traditional part of growing up.

Over-protection

Today parents are so concerned about the physical safety of their children that there is a tendency to overprotect them. As a result, today children in cities have to be under parental protection 24 hours a day.  Children are no longer allowed to be on the streets without adult supervision.  Parents can be punished for allowing their children to participate in activities that the current law considers to be dangerous.  Thus a child cannot be allowed to go to the corner shop to buy a pint of milk or a loaf of bread.  The growing child does not participate in the tasks which allow them to develop their independence. Several decades ago, a child reared in the city could go to visit friends in the local neighbourhood, play in the streets, or make their way to the park without adult supervision.   Today these growth experiences are denied because of what many people perceive as over-protective regulations.

A Commencement Speech

The benefits of encouraging an antifragile lifestyle are beautifully illustrated in the words of John Roberts, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, in his commencement speech to his son’s middle school:

He said, “From time to time in the years to come:

  • I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice.
  • I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty.
  • Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. ·
  • I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and the failure of others is not completely deserved either.  ·
  • I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion.
  • Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”

The Reader’s Contribution

Would you like to share your experience of the role of antifragility in your own life?  Let the other readers know how you have benefitted from the challenges you have overcome. How you have emerged with greater strength?

Whilst I was born Jewish, I grew up in a Post-Holocaust Era when many British Jews decided that it was a disadvantage to publicly demonstrate any adherence to this ancient religious grouping.   My father was one of those people.

Immigration to South Africa

My nuclear family of mother, father, brother, sister and myself immigrated to Cape Town, South Africa in 1947 at the conclusion of World War 2.   My father decided to send me to an Anglican School and stated my religious denomination as Unitarian.   I grew up pretty confused about my true religious identity as it was a taboo subject in our family. It is only now as an adult that I realise this state of affairs existed for many Jewish families at that time because of the horrific treatment experienced by the Jewish population of Europe.

I still have recurring memories of the phrase, “If the Germans come into this country, then all the Jews will be sent to concentration camps.”   During the war years, I was a youngster who did not understand the horror perpetrated by the Nazis, but I did grasp the concept of their treatment as being even worse than a death sentence!

Rationale

I now realise that it was as a consequence of this reality that my father did not consider it to be a good idea for any of his three children to marry members of the Jewish faith.   In addition, as a self- made businessman, he did not have much respect for the professions, more particularly the medical profession.   He supported his family as an astute property investor and developer.   As it happened we all married Jewish men of the medical profession, my sister married a dentist, my brother a paediatric doctor, and I married a General Practitioner.

As a mother I needed to learn how to integrate myself into both Jewish rituals as well as the cultural and social life of my co-religionists, whilst familiarising myself with the history of the Jewish Nation, a knowledge of Zionism, the concept of Israel, the indignities of Ani-Semitism, and the joys of Jewish music, art and literature.   The manifold expectations for a Jewish wife and mother were learned through experimental trial and error, whilst feeling a bit of an outsider amongst a culture which I had been denied to me during my childhood.

Commemorating Passover

The first night of Passover is commemorated with a multi-course festive meal, as well as the telling of the story of the Exodus combined with manifold customs and rituals which are all laid down in the Haggada.  The Haggada is the name given to the book which describes and rituals, songs, questions, eating patterns and procedures as well as the wine drinking which make up the Passover Meal.   It was first published in the 15th century and thousands of editions in many different languages have been printed over the years.

Whilst Orthodox Jews will continue to read from the more accepted versions of the text, progressive members of the faith value a more up to date and less traditional version of the story.    The traditional texts use biblical language with which I find it difficult to relate and it was in 1998 after 30 years of marriage that I decided to produce a family copy for the Seder or ritual meal which was conducted annually in our home.

Updating the Haggada

That was 30 years ago when photocopying was a comparatively new facility and it was with great excitement that I reviewed multiple editions of Haggadot in order to cull parts of the ritual and use contemporary language to tell the story.   Subsequently, newer additions of this adaption were printed and have served the family faithfully for the past 30 years.

Now technology was escalated.   The possibilities of creating a more contemporary version of the rituals are manifold.   Go to www.haggadot.com and you can choose from The Greatest Hits Haggada, the Liberal Haggada, The JQ International GLBT Haggada, and The Haggada 2019.

A more traditional rendition reads like this, “In every generation, every Jew must regard himself as though he personally were brought out of Egypt; as it is said: “And you shall tell your sons on the day saying:  It is because of what the Lord did for me when I left Egypt……………………….

I am not too sure about how the child of today reared on the shorthand of technological iterations would relate to this story.   But let us now go to a more contemporary reading!

“As human beings today, we reflect with great distance on the hardship of our ancient ancestors but with the great commitment, we spend a significant amount of energy retelling and remembering their suffering and story of perseverance annually.   As we make great efforts to celebrate and commemorate, we also turn and look at our recent history and the stories that surround our collective struggle to bring equality…………”

A central requirement of this tradition is to have the children participate and to ask questions.    The children ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights”

Remaining Relevant

This is just a taste of the full text and ritual of commemorating the Exodus from Egypt.   It made me think afresh about how the role of religion has changed over the years, and how religious customs adapt to maintain their relevance for each generation.   I find it refreshing that continuing with these customs help young people to develop an identity of a people who have maintained their lifestyle for 2000 years.    In an era when identity can be so peripheral, I felt grateful that I was in a position to modify both the words and the order for the Passover ceremony so that an ancient tradition could be commemorated in a meaningful way by friends and family.