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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Adversity


Part of my morning contemplation is set aside to remember people in my life, and indeed those whom I do not know, who are facing life altering circumstances. For the most part there is little I can personally do to alter the outcome and I suspect like many of you it is immensely frustrating to feel so powerless in the face of such adversity. As that familiar emotion bubbled to the surface recently I tried to imagine adversity as something other than an obstacle.

I remembered a waggish comment to the effect that life is a poor teacher because it administers the test before providing the lesson. That is true as far as it goes, we are challenged by many things but the hardest to address are those with which we have had no prior experience. Uncertainty adds an element to our challenges that makes it even more difficult to reconcile much less understand what we should do. Without deliberative action we are left to our own devices and perseverative worry generally follows.

When we have experienced a particular challenge before, we know what to expect. That may not reduce our anxiety but it gives it focus—we know at least what it is we fear. Free floating anxiety on the other hand is far more difficult to deal with in the near term. We may be relieved to find that our fear is unfounded or that the outcome is not so severe as we projected, or have our worst nightmare come true. Worry is just the interest we are paying on a loan we have not yet taken. So, my wandering thoughts led me to the idea that adversity is not the test as we sometimes assume, but rather the lesson itself. The test is in how we choose to respond.

I must confess that sometimes I simply put a challenge to the side. I don’t exactly ignore it but rationalize that as there is nothing I can do in the immediate to alter the outcome, my best course is to simply keep putting one foot in front of the other and soldier on. It’s not that I am ignoring the cause of my anxiety but meeting it with a productive response. I wish I could say that I am always able to deal with real and putative adversity in this fashion but sometimes I find myself immobilized.

In Frank Herbert’s seminal work, Dune, an important narrative thread concerns precisely this issue. The quote that comes to mind is: “Fear is the mind killer”. Perhaps you have had some personal experience that instructs you in the truth of this maxim. Forging ahead is one way of putting anxiety to the side—if momentarily, but when we are seized by worry so palpable that we cannot ignore it, what should we do?

There have been a few such times in my life where I simply had no faculty to deal with a fear, my being was entirely consumed with the pre-occupation of worry. I found only one way to move forward and that was to accept the adversity. I do not offer a prescription but share the metaphor that worked for me. It comes from a scene in Shakespeare’s King Lear—set in the midst of a violent storm. It begins, “Blow Winds and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! You cataracts and hurricanes, spout”. What does Lear have to do with me? Just this—like Lear I am in the midst of a storm—not of my own making—and surrounded by chaos and threat. Rather than huddle in fright Lear stands in defiance inviting the storms that lash at him to do their worst, while he endures.

Sometimes that is the best I can do; invite the fear and chaos it portends to pour down whatever they have in store and stand in the midst of the downpour resolute. There is a kind of freedom in that moment. Storms end and we are left in the aftermath with whatever they have wrought. It may be a shining sunrise or devastation--but whatever it is we are left to move forward. Strength in adversity is not resistance, but acceptance of this fact.


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