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The belief that sustains a survivor

17 May 2013

WE HEARD last Friday of the astonishing survival of Reshma Begum, a seamstress from one of the five garment factories in the stricken Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She had been working on the third floor when the building began to collapse. She ran down the stairs, and ended up in the basement, alive among rubble, dead and dying bodies, and shattered concrete. Then, 17 days after the start of her ordeal, she was rescued.

Soon after the news broke, I heard an interview on Radio 4 with Willie McMartin of the International Rescue Corps. He was asked how Ms Begum had managed to survive for so long. One of the main reasons he cited was culture.

People from the affluent West, he said, were likely to panic much more quickly. They were vulnerable when suddenly stripped of predictability and control. Poor people, especially those supported by a strong religious environment, did not lose hope so quickly. They were more able to stay calm because they believed that if they were destined to survive, they would indeed do so.

It was a surprise to think that a fatalistic attitude could contribute to survival. I was brought up to believe the exact opposite. I have long been familiar with the idea that poor people from the Third World, especially Muslims, were disadvantaged by precisely that fatalism; that they lacked the can-do creativity of the West.

But perhaps we overplay our belief in ourselves, and do indeed find ourselves more at a loss than others who are less fortunate when basic survival is at stake. Ms Begum's sister, when interviewed on local television, attributed the rescue to the mercy of God. This was not just conventional piety. Those who have lived in a Muslim culture are well aware of how everyday life, speech, action, and thought are permeated by a sense of the divine presence and the divine will.

A strong belief that God has ordained what happens was once part of the Christian faith, too. It has been parodied for supporting the status quo, and encouraging the poor to accept their lot in life. But it also enabled people to accept the derailments that most of us today find intolerable.

It is not simple stoicism - more an attitude of what might be called, after the spiritual classic, self-abandonment to divine providence. If Mr McMartin is right, Ms Begum survived because, even in terrifying circumstances, her centre of gravity remained beyond herself. She really believed.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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