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Of Toads and Precious Jewels

"Aus der Kriegsschule des Lebens. - Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich starker" translated "Out of life's school of war - what doesn't kill me, makes me stronger." Friedrich Nietzsche, philosopher

What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger? Seriously?

Fredrich Nietszche isn’t the only one to throw this beneficial idea of adversity around. Ancient philosophers from many cultures subscribed to the concept.

Over fifty years of scientific research tells us this is not always true, however. We know that many people develop debilitating conditions in reaction to adversity. They do not get stronger. They get depressed, panicked, and broken down.

Yet adversity can be beneficial. In the last few years modern day psychologists, like Jonathan Haidt, are attempting to give us a fuller picture of how adversity can affect us positively.

According to Haidt some people may use adversity, setbacks, even suffering and trauma to reach their highest levels of strength, fulfillment, and personal development. He outlines the three primary ways that adversity can be helpful.

The first benefit is around strengths development and resilience.

Most of us believe we simply could not endure some adversities. When tragedy strikes we may become numb, but somehow we keep putting one foot in front of the other. We realize that we are much stronger than we thought. We gain confidence about what we can endure. We seem to become inoculated to future stress.

A number of religious leaders have often pointed out this exact benefit of suffering. The Dalai Lama said: “The person who has had more experience of hardships can stand more firmly in the face of problems than the person who has never experienced suffering.”

The second way we benefit involves relationships.

Part of the benefit is about having some people come forward and feeling profoundly comforted by their support. Recently I browsed through some images of wildfires in my neck of the woods. Many scenes involve people rushing to others’ aid and hugging each other.

Another part of the relationship benefit is more along the lines of having a greater sense of appreciation for others in general. An increased ability to be more tolerant and loving with others despite their differences, warts, and quirks may spring up.

The third common benefit of setbacks and suffering is that we may change our priorities in ways that are more likely to make us happy and fulfilled.

Years ago I knew a woman who was given a terminal prognosis. Within a few months she had sold her house, quit her corporate job, and jumped on a plane to Europe with a plan to live out her last few months plein air painting.

The terminal prognosis was not so imminent after all. The woman eventually opened an art gallery. Adversity transformed her life into something much closer to her ideal.

What can we do with this research about adversity?

Maybe I should start with what we should not do. We should not be too bold about throwing Nietszche’s dictum around. Tragedies do hurt people. Suffering should not be celebrated. We should not be insensitive to others’ pain. Telling someone who has just received a cancer diagnosis about all the benefits of adversity is not helpful.

What we can do is broaden our perspective on adversity to see that it isn’t always all bad. When we, or our loved ones, experience an adversity, we can remind ourselves to look around and notice what benefits may be wrapped into the setback. We can embrace, be thankful for, the good in the bad.

A fuller perspective of adversity may also allow us to loosen up and be a bit more adventurous with life. When we are not inordinately fearful of setbacks, failures, and painful struggles, we are more likely to push our boundaries. We bounce back more quickly when things don’t go as we hoped.

This research may also help us adjust how we parent. We want our children to be safe, but sometimes we become overly anxious about failure, setbacks, and struggles. We may become protective to the point that we are stunting their growth.

A couple of years ago, I met a lady who said to me, “Oh, yes, you’re the lady who almost let her son drown in the Cashmere pool.”

The lady was talking about an incident that happened more than forty-two years ago. Honestly, I did not let my son almost drown. What I did do is let my five-year-old keep struggling to swim across the pool until he finally made it. It seemed like an eternity. And it took all the control I could muster not to jump in to the rescue.

Looking back, though it evidently gave me a questionable reputation as a mother, I’m glad I did it. My son’s confidence increased and he became an accomplished swimmer.

As of late, I have been hearing a lot about something called "hormesis." The idea is that small doses of "poison," that is, stress or adversity - usually of the intermittent type like fasting, exercise, low does of certain phytochemicals are helpful for our body's optimal functioning.

Bad stuff happens. It could have useful benefits. Perhaps Shakespeare had it more right than Nietszche, professor Haidt suggests :

Sweet are the uses of adversity

Which like the toad, ugly, and venomous,

Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.

(from "As You Like It" which recalls a folktale about an ugly toad whose head bore a precious, healing stone)

How might we broaden our understanding of adversity and journey to The Good Life?


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