Throughout his difficult childhood, Noah and his mother, Patricia, cope with their uncertainty, relative poverty, and fear of the violence surrounding them by using three important tools to manage their relationship to the future: religion, education, and humor. Noah’s mother, in particular, views her future and fate as instruments of God’s will; she dedicates countless hours to prayer in order to gain the sense of control and certainty that she otherwise lacks in her life. But she also encourages her son to educate himself and build his own future, just as she did for herself—not necessarily by staying in school as long as possible, but rather by thinking critically about the conditions that surround them rather than taking their assigned place in the world for granted. And finally, the two connect through humor, which allows them to name and confront their suffering while maintaining a broader, more optimistic (but still realistic) view of their lives as a whole. These three tools all help them overcome pain by understanding it from a new perspective that keeps a better future in view.
Religion is an essential source of solace and meaning for Noah’s mother and, as he notes, many other colonized peoples around the world; it allows them to sustain hope in the face of their extraordinary oppression but also lets them concretely advance in the colonial society by following the colonizers’ customs. Noah’s mother is a devout Christian; she takes the family to three churches every Sunday, which last all day, and seems to believe that the more church she goes to, the more blessings she will get and the more likely she will be to have her prayers answered. At the very end of the book, they are: she prays fervently when Abel tries to murder her, and his gun mysteriously misfires four times, which the police are never ultimately able to understand or explain. On the one hand, it clearly looks like Patricia’s prayers are saving her life; on the other hand, Noah wonders why his mother must suffer so immensely in the first place despite her piety. And Noah’s extended family in Soweto always values his participation in prayer circles because he speaks English and “everyone knows” that God pays more attention to prayers in English. This points to both the way the family stays optimistic about their futures and the way that they seem to gain advantages by selectively emulating the colonizers who brought Christianity to South Africa in the first place.
Noah and his mother also use education to broaden their senses of possibility—to imagine the better lives they want and set their minds to pursuing and improving their chances at a job. This is not just formal education, but (even more importantly) the ability to think critically, which Patricia instills in Noah from an early age. Patricia “spoke to [Noah] like an adult” and teaches him English, gives him books (especially fantasy, which stretches his imagination) and shows him “places black people never went” so that “he will know that the ghetto is not the world.” Through his mother’s insistence on questioning rules and systems of power, Noah learns to think for himself rather than follow received wisdom about his prospects as a poor South African. Like white children, he learns “that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered.” Likewise, Patricia’s own success is largely due to her schooling: because she managed to learn English in a mission school and pursue specialized job training, she could get the job as a secretary that allowed her to raise her children on her own.
Besides religion and education, humor plays an central role in Noah’s approach to life and suffering. Although he scarcely discusses his comedy career in this memoir, his writing itself shows how humor can not only deflect and dull pain, but also—and more crucially—help people maintain a sense of realistic resilience in the face of obstacles. Noah’s tone is tongue-in-cheek throughout the book, especially when it comes to describing the particular cultural quirks of his family or South Africa in general. While he and his family clearly suffer, he by no means views his situation as tragic. He particularly shares this sense of humor with his mother—most notably, they argue through jokes most Sunday mornings about whether Jesus really wants them to go to church (and three churches, at that). For Noah, this is as much a way of coping with the exhausting commute to church as a means of emphasizing that the benefits of devotion are psychological, fundamentally about its ability to change people’s perspective, regardless of whether they pray from home or church. The book’s closing moment shows Patricia’s remarkable strength and optimism through her humor. Her ex-husband Abel has just shot her in the head and nearly killed her, but she survives; when Noah visits her the second day in the hospital, she tells him to “look on the bright side,” which is that “now you’re officially the best-looking person in the family.” They laugh despite their horrible circumstances, suggesting that their resilience is their greatest asset.
After he recalls burning down a white family’s home as a child, Noah insists that he would not be himself without the ability to feel pain but not let it interfere with continuing to try new things and pursue his goals. In a word, this is the resilience he shares with his mother: both are well attuned to the arbitrary injustices of the world and neither represses their pain, but both have their techniques for going on in the face of pain, rather than resigning themselves to never improving their lot in life. Whether or not prayers are answered, fantasies come true, or jokes turn into a successful comedy career, Noah shows that these are all techniques for achieving resilience by creating perspective.
Resilience Through Religion, Education, and Humor ThemeTracker
Resilience Through Religion, Education, and Humor Quotes in Born a Crime
The white man was quite stern with the native. “You need to pray to Jesus,” he said. “Jesus will save you.” To which the native replied, “Well, we do need to be saved—saved from you, but that's beside the point. So let’s give this Jesus thing a shot.”
There is something magical about Soweto. Yes, it was a prison designed by our oppressors, but it also gave us a sense of self-determination and control. Soweto was ours. It had an aspirational quality that you don't find elsewhere. In America the dream is to make it out of the ghetto. In Soweto, because there was no leaving the ghetto, the dream was to transform the ghetto.
For the million people who lived in Soweto, there were no stores, no bars, no restaurants. There were no paved roads, minimal electricity, inadequate sewerage. But when you put one million people together in one place, they find a way to make a life for themselves. A black-market economy rose up, with every type of business being run out of someone's house: auto mechanics, day cafe, guys selling refurbished tires.
My mom raised me as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do. When I look back I realize she raised me like a white kid—not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered.
I was blessed with another trait I inherited from my mother: her ability to forget the pain in life. I remember the thing that caused the trauma, but I don't hold on to the trauma. I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new. If you think too much about the ass-kicking your mom gave you, or the ass-kicking that life gave you, you'll stop pushing the boundaries and breaking the rules. It's better to take it, spend some time crying, then wake up the next day and move on. You'll have a few bruises and they'll remind you of what happened and that's okay. But after a while the bruises fade, and they fade for a reason—because now it's time to get up to some shit again.
As the outsider, you can retreat into a shell, be anonymous, be invisible. Or you can go the other way. You protect yourself by opening up. You don't ask to be accepted for everything you are, just the one part of yourself that you're willing to share. For me it was humor. I learned that even though I didn't belong to one group, I could be a part of any group that was laughing. I'd drop in, pass out the snacks, tell a few jokes. I'd perform for them. I'd catch a bit of their conversation, learn more about their group, and then leave. I never overstayed my welcome. I wasn't popular, but I wasn't an outcast. I was everywhere with everybody, and at the same time I was all by myself.
I don’t regret anything I've ever done in life, any choice that I've made. But I'm consumed with regret for the things I didn’t do, the choices I didn’t make, the things I didn't say. We spend so much time being afraid of failure, afraid of rejection. But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to. “What if . . .” “If only . . .” “I wonder what would have . . .” You will never, never know, and it will haunt you for the rest of your days.
I grew up in a world of violence, but I myself was never violent at all. Yes, I played pranks and set fires and broke windows, but I never attacked people. I never hit anyone. I was never angry. I just didn't see myself that way. My mother had exposed me to a different world than the one she grew up in. She bought me the books she never got to read. She took me to the schools that she never got to go to. I immersed myself in those worlds and I came back looking at the world a different way. I saw that not all families are violent. I saw the futility of violence, the cycle that just repeats itself, the damage that's inflicted on people that they in turn inflict on others.
I saw, more than anything, that relationships are not sustained by violence but by love. Love is a creative act. When you love someone you create a new world for them. My mother did that for me, and with the progress I made and the things I learned, I came back and created a new world and a new understanding for her. After that, she never raised her hand to her children again. Unfortunately, by the time she stopped, Abel had started.
“My child, you must look on the bright side.”
“What? What are you talking about, ‘the bright side’? Mom, you were shot in the face. There is no bright side.”
“Of course there is. Now you're officially the best-looking person in the family.”
She broke out in a huge smile and started laughing. Through my tears, I started laughing, too.