The heroism of keeping on keeping on

13th September 2021

One day a lad exploring in the Eastern Cape veld came to a stream. What he did not know was that there was a deep pool just where he was about to cross. Suddenly he found himself submerged. But his momentum kept his feet on the ground, so he kept on walking underwater. In a few steps, he reached the other side and scrambled out.

When a crisis hits, if there is nothing else obvious to do, keep walking.

Many small businesses in South Africa have found themselves underwater recently, submerged by the twin threats of Covid and the recent riots. Many heroes have emerged, but for most of us, the heroism we can offer is to keep on keeping on.

Albert Camus wrote in a letter, “In the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love. In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile. In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm. I realised, through it all, that in the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”

All entrepreneurs need in their inner toolbox a sense of being invincible. Survivors act as if, within them, they are invincible, regardless of what happens around them. They know they will bounce back.

So survivors cope calmly with sudden crises, like one’s shop being looted, and cope resiliently with long-term adversity, like Covid-19. Sudden crises energise us, but long-term adversity can drain us of energy. When the adrenalin of surviving the riots fades, we will still be facing the dread effects of Covid-19, now compounded by the need to rebuild. We need resilience in bucketsful.

Where does this resilience come from?

Katherine King lists seven principles of resilience in Psychology Today. Firstly she suggests cultivating a belief in one’s ability to cope. That’s the invincibility that Camus was writing about. You have coped in the past, so you can cope this time. Of course this assumes that you have taken whatever sensible, courageous and creative practical steps you can think of to take charge of the future.

The next two are staying connected with supportive people and talking about what you are going through. If you cannot find someone available to listen, then I find it useful to take a pen and several blank sheets of paper (not a computer) and for ten minutes write whatever comes to mind, without worrying about grammar. It is both cathartic and insight-provoking.

Her fourth is to be helpful to others. This really works.

Fifthly, grow positive emotions by enjoying things like gratitude, love, nature, a home-cooked meal, a “runners high”, dance, music, poetry.

The sixth is to cultivate a survivor attitude. It is so very tempting to begin thinking like a victim, but that way leads to helplessness and failure. Thoughts can be habit-forming, so practise a self-image of surviving and thriving. Identity (“I am a survivor”) is an even more powerful influence than intention (“I will survive”). Try taking on a superhero avatar.

Her final principle is to seek meaning, whether through religion or another connection to purpose and significance in life. Develop a daily habit of reflection on what matters most.

Surviving and thriving in a small business is challenging in the current circumstances. But while these editorial pages are rightly filled with important policy debates about how to turn the economy around, what keeps us alive meanwhile is ordinary people exhibiting the ordinary heroism of keeping going, day after day. It’s the foundation for the future.


Jonathan Cook is a counselling psychologist and chairman of the African Management Institute. He is also the host of AMI’s weekly Rise reflection series focused on supporting you in your business and your personal wellness.

This article was originally published on BusinessLive on 03 August 2021 and is republished with permission.

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