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Posts from — April 2015

The Gift of Adversity

When everything goes wrong, what a joy to test your soul and see if it has endurance and courage! An invisible and all-powerful enemy—some call him God, others the Devil, seems to rush upon us to destroy us; but we are not destroyed.
| NIkos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

The Gift of Adversity

For the Homeric Greeks up through the pre-Socratics, courage was understood in terms of acting fearlessly in the face of danger. Homer’s epic poems are filled with verses extolling this sort of courage, and it is not until Socrates that the Greek view shifts, and courage is viewed not in terms of action but rather in terms of character. Aristotle carries this new paradigm forward in his Nichomachean Ethics (Book III) where he cites courage as one of the virtues, then goes on to point out that courage is not fearlessness but confidence in the face of fear. Many dispositions resemble courage, but in truth involve something else, such as wrong motive or ignorance, and these are in Aristotle’s view to be counted neither as courageous nor as virtuous. Here, as in the Socratic view, we see courage being addressed in terms of motive, clarity, purpose—qualities of character rather than qualities of action alone.

Nowadays, adversity is for the most part not met in the spirit that recognizes its power to reveal us to ourselves, as an opportunity to look into the mirror of our soul and refine our character under pressure. It seems that as a rule, we seek to avoid adversity, or at least to be done with as soon as possible, and we may be far more ready to adopt the stance of the victim than to rise to the occasion, submit to the “test” and use the fires of adversity to forge a more excellent self.

In philosophical counseling sessions, we see the stance of the victim assumed in many forms, some subtle, some not so subtle. It is in every case, however, characterized by a state of reaction to conditions in which one feels oneself to be powerless, unlucky, poorly treated, and in various other ways oppressed by conditions. Self-work always depends upon recognizing and assuming an empowering responsibility; consequently, any intrusion of the victim persona tends to bring the work in progress to a halt, or rather, examining the choice to be a victim becomes the work.

The arc from victimhood to courage, from suffering at the hands of adversity to transcending it through acceptance and the cultivation of character is not one that can be traversed in theory alone. It is only under real-world conditions of hardship that we can see where we stand. We do not seek such tests; life brings them to us soon enough. They may test us to our marrow, yet it is just under such conditions that we may discover something extraordinary in ourselves. As Thomas Carlyle writes, “No pressure, no diamonds.”

In a book I wrote some years ago, Recovering From A Broken Heart, I relate the story of a young man whom I met when I was teaching philosophy to inmates in jail and prison. B.K., as I refer to him, remains one of the most outstanding examples I’ve come across of courage in the face of adversity and the refusal to be a victim. Here’s an excerpt from the book about him:

His sense of himself was not only uninjured by the fear and cruelty inherent in the penal system, but it actually seemed to thrive under those adverse conditions. He was a tall, muscular man, around twenty-five then. . .. He never said much during our classes, but he always wore a subtle smile of appreciation and listened attentively. After several months in the jail, he was released to a halfway house. One night, standing outside, looking at the beautiful, starry sky, he was approached by a guard who ordered him to put out his cigarette. B.K. looked at the man, dropped his cigarette, and extinguished it under his heel. The guard told him to go inside; B.K. turned to oblige.

“Wait a minute,” the guard said, seeing that he was unable to provoke B.K., “I can put you on restriction any time I want.”

Continuing to gaze into the sky, B.K. replied, “Look at that star, man.”

“I said I can put you on restriction. I could do it right now,” the guard threatened.

“Yeah, but look; it’s one hell of a star,” B.K. said.

Frustrated, the guard finally snarled, “Okay, that’s it. You’re on restriction!”

“Really beautiful,” B.K. said, still looking up.

At that point, the guard, incensed, said incredulously,

“Didn’t you hear me? I said you’re on restriction! What’s a damned star going to do for you now?”

B.K. turned to the guard. He was not angry. He said simply, “I grow strong off of people like you.”

Because he didn’t resist, because he refused to be baited, he did not involve himself in words or actions that would have made his being put on restriction appear justified. The guard was left to support the entire, oppressive effort on his own; consequently, B.K. was not put on restriction. Even if he had lost his privileges, he would not have lost what was essential to him—his freedom—which lay in his ability to respond on his own terms rather than react to another’s. “The superior man cannot be beaten,” Lao-tze states, “because he does not contend.”

A few months later, when he’d been released from the halfway house, I ran into B.K. and he told me the story. “Let me ask you,” he said. “Which one of us do you think was really locked up?”

This refusal to react, to be a victim, to be defeated by the armies of adversity, certainly is not easy. The cultivation and deepening of excellence in ourselves always requires that we overcome the lower for the sake of the higher, that we stand up to baser impulses, turning from them to follow our better angels. There are no shortcuts, and the path is arduous. Even so, taking up the challenge may well be the most important thing we can do. For in this self-overcoming, we transform ourselves so that our life becomes much like a work of art, something uniquely beautiful, and an inspiration to others.

April 30, 2015   Comments Off on The Gift of Adversity