The Gift of Adversity
The Unexpected Benefits of Life's Difficulties, Setbacks, and Imperfections
Now in paperback—this acclaimed book from Norman Rosenthal, the New York Times–bestselling author and research psychiatrist, shows how life’s disappointments and difficulties provide us with the lessons we need to become happier and more resilient human beings.
Adversity is an irreducible fact of life. Although we can and should learn from all experiences, both positive and negative, bestselling author Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, believes that adversity is by far the best teacher most of us will ever encounter.
Whether the adversity one experiences is the result of poor decision-making, a desire to test one’s mettle, or plain bad luck, Rosenthal believes life’s most important lessons—from the value of family to the importance of occasionally cutting corners—can be best learned from it.
Running counter to society’s current prevailing message that “excellence” must always be aspired to, and failure or mistakes of any sort are to be avoided at all costs, Rosenthal shows that engaging with our own failures and defeats is one of the only ways we are able to live authentic and meaningful lives, and that each different type of adversity carries its own challenges and has the potential to yield its own form of wisdom.
Using stories from his own life—including his childhood in apartheid-era South Africa, his years after suffering a violent attack from a stranger, and his career as a psychiatrist—as well as case studies and discussions with well-known figures like Viktor Frankl and David Lynch, Rosenthal shows that true innovation, emotional resilience, wisdom, and dignity can only come from confronting and understanding the adversity we have experienced. Even when life is hardest, there are meanings to be found, riches to be harvested, and gifts that can last a lifetime.
Rosenthal illustrates his message through a series of compact, memorable chapters, each one drawn from episodes in the lives of his patients, colleagues, or himself, and concluded with a take-away maxim on the lesson learned.
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
—SHAKESPEARE, As You Like It
That which does not kill us makes us stronger.
He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.
One way to think about this book is as a collection of stories that happen to be true. They are stories I have collected through life’s journey, stories I have told to myself and others that cluster around a theme: What has life dealt me and what have I learned from it? What wisdom have I gleaned from the fascinating people whom fortune has put in my path and the curious times in which I have lived?
Somehow it is part of my nature, whenever something curious or unexpected happens, to ask myself, “What can I learn from this?” As I reflected on the stories I have collected, I reached an unexpected conclusion: All of them dealt with some sort of adversity, plus what I had learned from it. It has been said that you cannot become a master sailor on calm seas; so too you cannot navigate life successfully without learning how to handle adversity. To be sure, adversity is by its very nature painful and unwelcome. The trick then is how to move beyond these initial feelings and find something of value in the experience. That is the essence of this book: Put simply, the lessons embedded in these stories are the sweet uses of adversity. What does not kill us, to paraphrase Nietzsche, makes us stronger—but only if we learn from our mistakes and misfortunes.
It makes sense from an evolutionary point of view that we have the innate tools for such learning. Those ancient ones who learned best from danger, obstacles, setbacks, and reversals of fortune were more likely to survive long enough to transmit their DNA to future generations. Even so, although our ability to learn from adversity may be a highly selected trait, it can no doubt be greatly improved by experience and guidance, as I hope this book will show.
Adversity, it seems to me, can be divided into three categories. First, there is the adversity that results from plain bad luck—such as being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or being born with some genetic disease. Second is the adversity that we bring upon ourselves by making some mistake or error of judgment. The pain of this type of adversity is compounded by feelings of guilt and shame at having been responsible for the misfortune. Finally, there is the adversity that we actually seek out, as when we take a calculated risk, set off on an adventure, or let slip the dogs of war. Although adversity is not generally the stated goal of such an enterprise, it is an accepted and integral part of the process. Each type of adversity carries its own challenges and has the potential to yield its own form of wisdom. All will be represented in one form or another in this book.
As a psychiatrist, whenever things go wrong in the lives of my patients, I am always inclined to ask them: “Has anything like this ever happened to you before? What did you do then? And how did it work out?” Then, after the issue is sufficiently resolved, I often ask, “What lesson can you take from this event? How can you do things differently to prevent it from happening in the future?” It is natural for me to ask these questions, not only as a result of my training, but because they are the same questions I always ask myself—and have done as long as I can remember—whenever things don’t work out as I had hoped. Over time these lessons accumulate, and, if we are lucky, in the words of Aeschylus, drop by drop comes wisdom, the bittersweet fruit of adversity. Crises are learning opportunities. If we can begin to draw connections between what we have learned from crises, we can work out a systematic way of dealing with them. Research shows that many people become happier as they get older. Perhaps that is a result of the wisdom we acquire over the years, which helps us avoid trouble when possible and deal better with it when it arises.
In my work with patients and in my writings, I often use stories to illustrate points, because I have always loved stories and gained a lot from them. Perhaps we are wired to learn from stories, since that is how experience has been recorded and communicated since the beginning of human time. Stories speak to both the heart and the mind: If they fail to move us, we are likely to learn less from them. So I have chosen stories as my main medium for communicating whatever wisdom you may find in these pages. Where appropriate, I buttress my stories with relevant research. I also conclude, in the spirit of Aesop, with a take-home message or two to summarize the point of each story. It is my hope that these takeaways will be a tool to help you remember and use the lessons that I and others took away from these events.
Although some of the stories in this book come from my own experiences, in many instances I am only the narrator, relating events that occurred in the lives of some of the intriguing people I have encountered: family members, friends, patients, and colleagues, as well as people I have had the good fortune to meet, or who have taken part in my research studies and writing projects. Through these experiences, I have had a privileged window into many different worlds.
A few disclaimers: Some of the adversity I will describe took place on a horrendous scale, such as what occurred in Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa, in which I grew up, and many people suffered horribly as a result of both these fascist regimes. You will meet in this book people who have experienced adversity at that level: for example, the servants who helped to raise me and several Holocaust survivors, including the great author and neurologist Viktor Frankl, whom I was fortunate enough to meet during the last years of his life. You will also meet people who have suffered homelessness, or the torment of severe mental illness and drug abuse. In all these cases, I do not wish to compare their profound suffering with anything I have experienced myself. My life has been for the most part a lucky one.
So this book is not intended to belong to the genre designed to draw attention to specific horrors endured by the author. Nor is it intended to be encyclopedic with regard to all possible adversities that a person might ever encounter. Instead, my goals in this book are twofold: first, to share some of the setbacks, reversals, and imperfections I and others have experienced, along with the unexpected insights they have provided; and second, to suggest ways in which you might benefit from these insights too.
Some chapters are devoted to methods for overcoming adversity, such as meditation, developing healthy habits, and—no surprise here— talking about traumatic experiences or writing about them—in other words, turning experiences into stories.
In summary, I hope you will find the stories in this book interesting in their own right, and that they will stimulate you to think about the adversity you have experienced, what you have learned from it, and how you can use that wisdom going forward. The take-home message of this book is that even when life is at its most painful and difficult, it has meaning and value. Even when things are really awful, some good can come of them. Our times of struggle yield gifts and riches that are worth harvesting, because they continue to nourish us throughout life’s journey.
The Thumbs Must Go
If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.
If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.
—G. K. CHESTERTON
My first-grade classroom was a prefabricated hut, made out of what seemed to me like reinforced cardboard, set on a concrete slab.
What I recall most about it is the smell of leather from the backpacks in which we hauled our rudimentary items to and from school. Besides holding up the roof, cardboard played a role in the lessons too.
I remember one particular art project vividly, because it was a turning point for me. In this assignment, we were each given a large sheet of white cardboard on which various parts of a clown’s body were outlined. Our task was to color in the clown’s body parts with crayons, then cut them out and join the head, arms, and legs to the body using brass-plated fasteners. Then you could move the limbs up and down to make the clown do jumping jacks.
I started the project, but soon realized it was not going well. In retrospect, my fine motor control left a lot to be desired. Of course, nobody tested kids for fine motor control in those days, but I didn’t need any test. I got the picture by simply glancing at the boy beside me. There I was laboring down the inner aspect of one arm toward the hand, while he was all the way around the hand of his clown, and barreling past the elbow. I looked back down at my clown’s hand, still trapped in its cardboard moorings, and realized that if I tried to get it exactly right, my clown might not get done at all.
That was unacceptable! But how could I get it done? The fingers looked manageable, because they were all bunched together, but the thumb stuck out—as thumbs do—long, spindly, and difficult. And in that moment, I realized what I had to do: The thumb must go! And with that insight, I snipped it off.
From then on, all went smoothly. When I got to the bottom of the second arm, the course of action was clear. Again: The thumb must go! And in one snip, the second thumb was gone. By the end of the hour, the body parts were all cut out and I had managed to articulate the joints. My clown could do jumping jacks along with everyone else’s, and he looked okay to me. So when we were all encouraged to come up to the table and show the teacher our work, I did so.
The teacher’s attention was divided among many students, so she didn’t have much time for individual comments—and the clowns all looked pretty much the same. But her eye did pause on mine for a moment and she said, “That clown’s got no thumbs,” before drifting on to her next observation.
The most important part of the lesson, as far as I was concerned, was that amputating the clown’s thumbs had no significant consequences. I got the job done in time. I had a working clown. And apart from the teacher’s one offhand remark, I can’t recall anyone saying anything about the matter of the thumbs.
Many times since then, when I encounter some minor obstacle that’s holding up an important task, I say to myself, “The thumbs must go!” And there and then, I know what to do.
On a recent visit to Israel, I was chatting with a cousin who is a lawyer for Israel’s thriving technology industry. In fact, he told me that Israel ranks third in the world after Silicon Valley and the greater Boston area as a technology hub. How was it, I asked him, that such a small country could achieve such technological success? There had to be many factors at play, he said, then added, “Somehow they always seem to figure out shortcuts. As they say, ‘The great is the enemy of the good.’ Why wait for a product to be perfect before putting it on the market? Put out a beta version and let the marketplace work out the bugs.” I smiled to myself. That’s what my clown was, I realized—a beta version.
I HAVE SOMETIMES thought about how the lesson of the clown has influenced me throughout my life. His thumbs must have been part of my thinking when I embarked upon the most important experiment of my research career. The study in question involved exposing nine people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) to two different types of lighting—bright white light and dim yellow light. The experiment was the first controlled study of light therapy for SAD, and the first to show bright light to be an effective treatment for the condition. The paper became a citation classic and opened up a whole new field of research.
In the beginning, however, because of our limited budget, we had to adopt certain shortcuts. For example, we had to improvise the dim light condition. We could think of no better way to dim the light than to attach brown paper inside the plastic screen of the light box. The overall effect was inartful—to say the least. Yet so powerful was the effect of bright light for SAD that it overcame all the shortcomings of the study. That research was replicated many times over and has been helping people all over the world for more than thirty years, so I’m certainly glad that I took a chance with a beta version.
I had a very different experience many years later, when I opened a private business to test out new drugs for psychiatric disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Exquisite attention was paid to every aspect of each study’s design and implementation. No thumbs were cut. On the contrary, every fingernail was carefully clipped and buffed. And what resulted from all this meticulous attention to detail? Not much. A few studies (of the dozens we conducted) yielded results that were of some value in clinical practice, but overall, the drugs we tested were similar to others already in use. Therefore the results, even when significant and positive, usually made little difference.
As the proverb states, “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well” (though as you can see by the quote at the top of this chapter,
G. K. Chesterton thought otherwise). The version of that wisdom that resonates most usefully for me—taking into account the lesson of the clown and my life’s experience—goes as follows:
If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing not so well.
Most things don’t have to be perfect. So cut corners if you must, as long as you don’t sacrifice the essence or core of the work.
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