❝That which does not kill us makes us stronger.❞ -Friedrich Nietzsche
I've got my popcorn in hand as I grab my seat in the theater. It's 40 years from now, and I'm gathering with my closest friends and family members to watch the story of my life.
As we watch the movie, one thing becomes painfully clear. I notice that there have been many challenges and struggles throughout my life. There have been stressful times. I've experienced painful losses. I've been angry, sad, frustrated, afraid, embarrassed, and envious.
As these scenes play out on the screen, I can't help but remember how awful I felt during those moments. I still feel some residual emotions as I watch, hoping my friends and family aren't judging me as they watch the movie. Past Me was angry when someone stole his idea, sad when he was burned out with no direction in college, frustrated when he couldn't figure out how to meditate, afraid of what would happen when he quit his toxic job, embarrassed when he got ripped apart during the question and answer portion of a presentation, and envious as he watched less qualified people thrive.
While watching the movie, I want nothing more than to go back in time to get Past Me out of those situations. Past Me did not want to experience the suffering. What he wished for was for an easy life. He wanted to be on Easy Street. He thought that perhaps Easy Street was just up ahead.
But Easy Street never came. The character in my life movie always had problems or hurdles to overcome. Then it finally occurs to me that I am who I am only because those things happened. I am stronger, smarter, more empathetic, more skilled, and more sympathetic because and only because I had the opportunity to overcome challenges.
Everyone seems to wish for a life without struggle, but a meaningful life is meaningful because of struggle.
ADVERSITY IS GUARANTEED
In the middle of stress, it's common for many of us to long for a life where we don't have to deal with all the things we have to deal with. We hope for a life that's free from stress. Given a choice between option A that is full of adversity, and option B that is free from adversity, many people take option B.
Many people have this view of retirement. They think if they can just hurry up and make it through their working years, they won't have to work anymore. They will be able to simply sit on a beach all day long watching the ocean or simply spend all their time golfing.
The problem with this view is not simply that it's wishful thinking. The bigger problem is that this wishful thinking is quite literally impossible. We are faced with the human condition. What it means to be a human is to come face to face with problems...over and over again.
Wishing otherwise sets us up for disappointment.
SENSITIVITY TO ADVERSITY
If you pause for a moment to think about this world without adversity, you'd quickly realize that it's not one that you would really want.
When I was growing up, there was a video game called Super Mario Brothers, which was a game about a plumber whose objective was to rescue a princess from a turtle. It was a pretty fun game. You had to navigate your character, Mario, from the left side of the world to the right side of the world while avoiding holes in the ground, turtles that were trying to kill you, plants that were trying to eat you, and little mushrooms called goombas that we wanted you dead.
Now imagine the same video game with no obstacles. You simply ran Mario from the left side of the world to the right side of the world. Nobody would play this game. It would be boring.
Similarly, you wouldn't watch a movie or read a book about a person who was happy all the time and didn't have anything to figure out. Nor would you want that to be the story of your life as you look back.
Furthermore, if there were a world without adversity, we would become more sensitive to adversity. Just like a world without germs doesn't allow us to develop a healthy immune system, a world without adversity wouldn't allow us to develop a psychological immune system.
To build a healthy psychological immune system and make ourselves less sensitive to adversity, we should want more problems to solve.
Resiliency describes the way people cope with adversity. It's the ability to adapt when things don't go the way we hoped. Resiliency is necessary because life equals adversity.
When setbacks happen, especially severe setbacks, those who fail to recover suffer from posttraumatic stress. Resiliency describes our ability to recover and how quickly we can recover.
Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte, authors of the book The Resilience Factor, describe four ways to use resiliency to live the best life we can. The first is to overcome obstacles that we faced when we were children. Resiliency helps us put behind any damage that might have happened when we were growing up. The second is to navigate the stress of everyday life. There are everyday hassles that resiliency helps us deal with. The third is to bounce back from significant setbacks. Most people will come up against some pretty big setbacks in their life that change the course of our lives, and resiliency helps us recover from these. Finally, resiliency helps us reach out into the future by helping us find our purpose in life so that we can find meaning.
We can even take our need for adversity a step further. By developing a strong enough psychological immune system, we can actually grow and learn from adversity. Many argue that people need adversity and setbacks in order to learn. Some even argue that trauma is required to reach the highest levels of being.
When problems happen, including traumas and other tragedies, we benefit in the long run in a few different ways. The first is that we often learn about ourselves. We learn that we can handle more than we thought we were. That helps change our view of ourselves. Humans are awful predictors of how good or bad things will be and how our performance will be when things go wrong. Being forced to confront problems helps us see who we really are. It helps us develop the skills we need to tackle any future stresses.
When significant problems arise, it can help us figure out our priorities to reprioritize our lives to what's important to us. These major setbacks help people orient towards the present, be more mindful, and focus on relationships. It focuses us on our most important values and aspirations.
Problems have the potential to strengthen relationships. When something awful happens, and you solve it with those closest to you, that bond strengthens. The opposite is true, too. It helps us figure out who our true friends are and who our fairweather friends are. Who helped you when you needed help the most?
This idea of growing from adversity, which is called posttraumatic growth, or PTG, says that we should both welcome stresses and problems, as well as reframe these problems when they do happen.
TAKE MORE CHANCES
It stands to reason, then, that if we grow from adversity and want to grow, then we should welcome adversity. We should welcome challenges and struggles. That's how we practice. This is how we get better.
There's an old saying that you can't get a hit if you never step up to the plate. The fear of striking out keeps people from taking the chance. But only those who step up to the plate and risk striking out can get on base. Further, with every strikeout comes lessons. You'll learn. You get more information, and you make it more likely that you'll get on base the next time you step up to the plate.
What does stepping up to the plate mean for you?
If the human condition says that there will be suffering and there will be adversity, then we can't get rid of it. But we can learn from it. And if we're going to suffer, we might as well suffer for the right reason.
What are you suffering for?
You get one life; live intentionally.
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References and Influences
Adams, Scott: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big
Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier, No Matter What
Emmons, Robert: THANKS!
Gilbert, Daniel: Stumbling on Happiness
Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis
Hanson, Rick & Forrest Hanson: Resilient
Irvine, William: Guide to the Good Life
Irvine, William: A Slap in the Face
Kinder, George: Transforming Suffering into Wisdom
Manson, Mark: Everything is Fucked
Manson, Mark: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck
Reivich, Karen & Andrew Shatte: The Resilience Factor
Ware, Bronnie: The Top Five Regrets of the Dying
Whelan, Christine: The Big Picture
Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.