Waking up to Wisdom
In Stillness and Community

Effects of Adversity

--by Eranda Jayawickreme (Jul 20, 2015)

Adversity may help people distinguish between events they can really control by changing their environment versus uncontrollable events. While they cannot change the environment in the latter case, they can control their response to them by accepting and adjusting their beliefs to fit with facts on the ground. Thus, on receiving a serious health diagnosis, I would respond positively by accepting the diagnosis and acknowledging that I have led a full life and would soon be going to a “better place.” Adversity may thus “humble” us in a way that is vital for our character growth, by educating us about the limits of the self, the limits of our control on the world, the weaknesses in our character, and the appropriate place of the self in the universe. In other words, adversity may free us from the tyranny of ego, by promoting a healthy sense of humility and helping us answer the question, “Why be good?” with the best response possible.

But we still don’t know everything about the effects of adversity. We don’t know, for example, what type and degree of adversity is “best” for our character, and it is important to be clear that some types of adversity provide few silver linings, if any. Not too long ago, Blackie and I traveled to a country with a terrible recent history of ethno-political conflict to talk with war survivors. During our travels, we heard heartbreaking stories of death, rape, injury, and loss. One young woman who remained positive and upbeat throughout our conversation had been severely wounded by gunfire. A second woman continued to search for her most likely dead son. A man of strong faith had no stable home apart from his visits to the treatment center we were visiting. We were stunned into silence, and as we drove off that evening, we asked ourselves, “Why be good when life is stacked against you?”

It may take a lifetime for these people to recover from such trauma, if ever. The fact that all of us will encounter tragedy at some point in our life does not necessarily mean that we should actively seek it out or be indifferent when suffering befalls others. And of course, we must do our utmost to protect people from severe suffering. But the people we met all had admirable faith, and some remained remarkably graceful and positive despite all they had suffered. The fact that these people were able to continue about their lives without succumbing to complete despair -- and even respond with forgiveness and grace -- is one of the greatest testaments to the human spirit and fundamental human goodness I can imagine.

Eranda Jayawickreme is an assistant professor of psychology at Wake Forest University.

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Previous Reflections:

On Jul 16, 2015 Dan Duncan wrote:

When it is really adversity and not just inconvenience, I get through it one breath at a time.
And I remind myself of G.K. Chesterton's aphorism:
"Inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered, and adventure is inconvenience, rightly considered."

In today's economic downturn, my life is full of adventures, one breath at  a time.

On Jul 17, 2015 Kristin Pedemonti wrote:

 Why be good? Because being good opens the opportunity for others to be as well. I interpreted good as Compassionate; being compassionate serves everyone and often costs nothing but energy and time. Growth from adversity:  I believe it is all in how we choose to view a situation: what can I learn from this? what is the potential gift in this experience? how can this help me be more compassionate and understanding of others? Personal experience: My father tried to kill himself 5 times, by the time I was 15  he could no longer work and he died when I was 22. What were the gifts? Compassion & seeking to understand what was going on for him.  unless we ask and seek to understand, we do not know what is going on for someone. The asking may open an opportunity for the person to speak, share and release some of their own sadness or the burden they feel that they are alone. The experience of growing up with my father led me to listening deeply to others who may be challenged with mental illness or whatever challenge they are facing. It also led me to Free Hugs and connecting, conversing and offering comfort through 2 words on a cardboard sign. and when I went through depression myself it helped me to see that the darkness helped me view the light with even more gratitude. Overcoming adversity once also helps you realize you can do it again and again and you can serve others to overcome as well. Hugs from my heart to yours.

On Jul 17, 2015 david doane wrote:

There are a lot of comments in this piece that I had difficulty with.  For example, I believe all events are uncontrollable -- at best I have some influence on events.  I believe our control on the world is very limited.  We don't know if we are going to a "better place" after this life -- you never know.  I don't even know if there is a better place.  We don't know everything about adversity or anything else.  You never know how long it takes to recover from trauma.  Seeking out tragedy makes no more sense than seeking out anything.  Protecting people from severe suffering is not a must.  Now for the questions to respond to.  We don't be 'good' because of the presence of or lack of adversity.  I'll define 'good' for now as being true to myself.  Adversity underlines that being good is the way to be, it is its own reward, it's not done because I'm in painless times or painful times.  I haven't always lived up to that and don't know that I will in severe adversity but I do believe it.  Adversity always helps me grow, because it pushes me beyond my present boundaries and into being different in responding to the adversity.  Leaving my best friend who was also my business partner was a time of great adversity for me -- sad about our split and my leaving him, scared about what would be next, doubting myself, and I moved on.  That's a very short version of that story but I grew in dealing with the situation and finding more of my own self and my own way.  What helps me avoid despair -- having a stubborn determined mother and being much that way myself, wanting to see a situation through to the end (that's why the form of suicide I've decided on is living until I don't), believing that you never know what will happen and wanting to find out, not allowing myself despair (yet), believing that I grow from adversity.  I guess I don't believe in despair -- and maybe I haven't encountered a severe enough adversity yet.

On Jul 21, 2015 Jagdish P dave wrote:

 It is my experience and observation that we all experience adversity and suffering in varying degrees. How we take it makes the difference in the impact of adversities. I also realize that some adversities are out of my control such as natural happenings like floods, hurricanes, volcanoes and earth quakes. But most of our sufferings are self created and self-sustained,

Looking back at my life, I see how we growing up in a poor family did not suffer for not having many things others had in their lives. My parents had a deep sense of contentment with whatever possessions we had. By growing up in such a family, I did not feel the poverty within me for not having "enough" in my life. I married a woman I loved very dearly. She was born and raised in a very rich family having luxurious things she wanted. She left her home and embraced to live in the poor extended family out of deep love for me.Love and faith were our anchors that kept us flowing with the wonderful life.

That happy journey ended when she passed away about three years ago. Did I suffer? You bet. Losing some one, a soul mate for some 60 plus years of my life is very very hard. Is there a grace in suffering? Yes.I have realized the truth that  every hi has a bye and every bye has a hi.Nothing is here for ever.Living life with this awareness is keeping the cup of my life full.Sharing the fullness of my living with others and serving them from my heart is a blessing to me and I feel gratitude for receiving such blessings from others. It is by giving I indeed receive.

May the suffering we go through enkindle the light of forgiveness and compassion in us  and make us feel connected with each other..

Jagdish P Dave

On Jul 22, 2015 Abhishek wrote:

 I have looked at adversity, both for myself and in others very closely to see what it does....

For myself I have seen that the biggest adversity in my life (a tryst with Bipolar) opened up a totally new way of being for me (eventually, over 5 years of sitting with it) and today this fundamentally shapes who I am....

But I have also seen people regress....adversity pushes them into more base emotions and bitterness, makes them conclude (perhaps inaccurately) about the world and so on....

My sense is that the realization that we have almost no control over external events is stark, when fully embraced. Standing in that, with a belief that the Universe is well-intentioned (and that is also merely an assumption we choose) is difficult business!

Experimenting with Stoicism and engaging actively with the idea of death are practices that are preparation for adversity - and yet each time it meets me, it is always a surprise encounter! And that is what it is meant to be perhaps :)

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