Laith is a 19-year-old Palestinian third-year medical student and a shining example of a change agent.
Below is the full text of his TEDx Talk titled “How Toxic Stress Can Drive Creativity” at TEDxOcala conference. This event occurred on November 3, 2018.
What is the first thing you think about when you hear the word “Palestine”?
Do you think about: Religion? Adversity? Politics? You might be thinking about Pakistan! Or maybe nothing at all.
The first thing that pops into my mind is hope.
Being a Palestinian, living in the West Bank, means that I am living through and experiencing one of the most controversial conflicts in modern history.
Living in such cases would yield what I would refer to as “toxic stress”, which is a term that describes the general human responses when faced with threats, challenges, and their consequences.
Here you would have one of two choices: You can either let this toxic stress destroy your soul and crush your hopes, or you can transform it into a form of energy that drives you to be creative and catalyze positive change.
It is said that agony is justified as soon as it becomes the raw material of beauty. When I first read this quote, I instantly thought about those respectable artists and inventors we hear about having lives filled with torment and affliction which happen to drive and generate the unparalleled creativity we know them for, people like J. K. Rowling or Nikola Tesla.
It also reminded me of an ancient Greek concept known as the tortured artist, which, in a nutshell, proposes that toxic stress inspires creativity and accomplishment.
When I interpreted this quote from the perspective of an ambitious Palestinian youth, I found it to be heavily related to the Palestinian life as well.
Now, for the past eight years, I have been very active when it comes to after-school activities, participating in the biggest innovation forum in Palestine, taking a part and winning a national entrepreneurship program, and my latest achievement being organizing the first ever TEDx event at my college last April.
During my involvement in these, alongside many other initiatives, I was exposed to a very diverse segment of other inspiring Palestinians.
One thing that I kept on noticing after getting to know them and their stories is the overwhelming and apparent sense of creativity that was clearly and vividly inspired by toxic stress, either directly or indirectly.
An important fact about Palestine: This very complex state that Palestinians have been living in for the past 50 years, has left a huge scar on their mental well-being.
Depression there is extremely prevalent and is considered an epidemic: about 30%, which is a rate that is unmatched elsewhere in the world.
Just to put that percentage into perspective, it is 10 times higher than that of the UK. Here in the U.S., it’s almost 69%.
Imagine what life would be like if 30% of the American population dealt with this mental disorder.
Now most people would react to these facts with a dominant sense of pessimism, unless you’re like Mohammad Herzallah, a neuroscientist, researcher, and a graduate of the same medical school I am attending.
Mohammad has transformed these ominous facts into a golden chance, or what is known as a cristuinity, an opportunity in the midst of a crisis.
Although a tragic one, this has made his homeland, Palestine, an ideal place to perform groundbreaking research on the effects of clinical depression on the human brain.
What Mohammad did was set up the first ever infrastructure for neuroscience research in Palestine, the Palestinian Neuroscience Initiative, which has now established multiple partnerships with Ivy League universities and renowned research centers, in addition to its expansion and its involving multiple other inspiring, young medical students.
Mohammad is now listed as one of the 500 most influential Arabs, a neuroscience expert, and a TED fellow.
The reason I chose Mohammad as an example from Palestine is because of his resourceful and goal-oriented motive. He says, and I quote:
“Let’s turn this problem into an advantage, and train the next generation to deal with it.”
The thing about creativity is that it is a very sensitive and malleable tool. When we are in a state of sadness, it can be utilized as a form of therapy to provide light in the darkness that dominates.
And when you think about it, it actually makes sense. I mean, this is why we use art therapy, music therapy, and even drama therapy, when dealing with mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.
There are multiple ways we can transform our own negative emotions into astounding forms of hope.
Take this other smiley and happy Mohammad, for example. By the way, if you’re ever in Palestine and you don’t know someone’s name, just call them Mohammad – that – this will do the trick.
So Mohammad is also known as “The Young Picasso of Palestine.” He is a 16-year-old kid with an exceptional sense of creativity. He lives in Gaza, which is known to be the most densely populated area in the whole world, extremely poor, barely has electricity, and has suffered from three major wars in the past few years.
Although toxic stress is being faced on all fronts, when it comes to Mohammad, he still sees this toxic stress and these hardships as a blessing, as they enable him to channel his own negative emotions into this mesmerizing artwork.
The young Picasso occasionally improvises using coffee, sand, and glue, instead of paint, due to the very harsh lifestyle he’s forced to experience.
Coffee, sand, and glue! If I were given the best and most professional painting tools in the world, this would be the — this would be the result.
It is also worth mentioning that inspiration was not the only factor here as it was met by dedication, hard work and consistency.
Pablo Picasso once said:
“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”
Unfortunately, Palestinians are viewed as helpless and needy at the international level, which is totally expected, to be honest, although not accurate.
That is due to the very shallow depiction and false image that are being portrayed to everyone else in the world.
Yes, it’s true that we’re facing toxic stress, but it is also very important that we address the presence of the filled half of the cup because it exists.
It’s time that we shift our focus to what can be accomplished and what can be done, rather than dwell on the unsolvable. Implementing this concept won’t only improve the world’s perception of Palestine, but also the Palestinians’ perception of themselves.
What I, the first Mohammad, the second Mohammad, and many other Mohammads and Palestinians are doing perfectly exemplifies my belief in what would serve to remarkably better the situation in Palestine.
The beauty of this concept is that it is universal. It’s versatile. Anyone can adopt this mentality and apply it in their lives at various scales whenever faced with any form of toxic stress.
If a small, striving and poor country could have one of the highest literacy rates in the world, produce the next Picasso, have the youngest journalist in the world, or the best teacher in the world, imagine what you, with less toxic stress and more resources, have the potential to do.