On Adversity

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. So say the motivational speakers. Is it true?

Adversity has the power to break us – or transform us. The difference lies not in avoiding hardship, but in how we rise above it.

An author group I recently visited confessed how many of us who write take up the pen to make sense of the insensible. John DeDakis’ protagonist, Lark Chadwick, is a living embodiment of a beloved sister he lost to suicide. Silvia Plath wrote “The Bell Jar” to delve into her struggles with mental illness, societal expectations, and relationships. Scout Finch, the beloved narrator in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is largely based on Harper Lee’s own childhood experiences.

Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor famously wrote how finding meaning amid the pain is a potent tool for resilience. It’s not about ignoring pain, but rather asking, “What can I learn from this? How can I grow stronger, kinder, more compassionate because of it?”

Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for decades in his fight against apartheid, emerged not with bitterness, but with a profound commitment to reconciliation. “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom,” he wrote, “I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

Psychologist and author Edith Eva Eger, another survivor of the Holocaust, emphasizes this in her book, “The Choice”. “Healing doesn’t mean the damage never existed. It means the damage no longer controls our lives.”

True resilience isn’t about superhuman strength, but the willingness to keep going. Author Elizabeth Gilbert says ruin can be a gift: “Ruin is the road to transformation.”

So, how do we cultivate this ability? The same prescription I often write about in these missives applies: self-compassion, seeking connection, focusing on what we can control, and gratitude, even amid difficulty. Here is another addition to that list.  Find a medium for expression and exploration. A character in a story, the creation of art, musical composition, or performance. Looking at pain from a distance can provide perspective.

Rising above past pain demands courage, vulnerability, and ongoing, often uncomfortable effort. Yet, the journey can unveil our deepest strength. We may find we are far more capable, more resilient, and more profoundly connected to the human spirit than we ever imagined possible. Give it a try!