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PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Diamonds of Adversity

No pressure, no diamonds.
| Thomas Carlyle

Diamonds of Adversity

Just as immense pressure forms diamonds deep in the earth, so it is the pressure of adversity that transforms a human life into something precious, beautiful, valuable, and rare. Remembering this instruction, we might be slow to succumb to both victimhood and enabling others, since we would recognize that it is in the fires of adversity that character is forged, and that we don’t help ourselves when we complain or resent our lot, nor others when, in relieving them of certain pressures, we unwittingly rob them of needed lessons. There is no doubt that adversity is a great teacher the moment we become willing to be its student, and that we’re made far more brilliant by what we lose than by what we win. Despite the prevailing culture of indulgence and entitlement, it is, as Lao tze noted 2,500 years ago, the “emptiness at the center” that makes something useful. Running around the world trying desperately to fill any frisson of that emptiness with banal social media “likes,” romantic and sexual encounters procured on dating sites, and distracted consumerism, we may so lose track of the diamonds waiting to be dug out of us that we suffer an odd sense of impoverishment and ennui in the midst of all our possessions and achievements, and wonder why it is that, no matter what we do, we never feel happy.

Adversity is clearly underrated and worse, made something to avoid at all costs—as though life should be free of hardship (and so, of challenges), and discomfort is regarded as symptomatic. This particular and sadly pervasive form of “soul disorder,” as the classical Greeks regarded it, produces among many other lamentable things, the bipartisan infighting and pettiness that has taken the U.S. Congress and White House hostage, producing a mounting pressure without the diamonds. This is the pressure created just before things start falling apart, when leaders succumb to unenlightened self-interest and winning at all costs, when chaos ascends to power, the world is played as a zero-sum game with no one in a position of leadership willing to take responsibility for the state of his or her soul, and even the trivial adversity of disagreement becomes intolerable.

We do not need to seek out adversity. Adversity will find us soon enough—another great lesson from the Greeks. Fate favors no one forever, and the gods seem to take special pleasure in bringing hubris to its knees. Those who, while never seeking out adversity, have nevertheless made peace with it, who can accept it as an occasion to transcend and endure, who use it to improve their character and practice resilience, who recognize that hard times compel us to find creative and often surprising solutions—they will be here, living and learning, long after the children of entitlement have been humbled and forgotten. Every dog has its day. When the dogs take over the household, they may do considerable damage before things return to normal. And while the dogs themselves are unlikely to benefit from the chaos they create, those who live in the house may use the damage done as an opportunity for self-examination, and be made better, richer, and stronger for it.