The Value of Adversity

We all want good fortune in our life. Who would wish for adversity for ourselves or anyone? We work to avoid bad things happening to us. Yet perhaps adversity is valuable, even necessary, for living well. Perhaps we should welcome it when it occurs.

US Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts gave a commencement address making this case.

Now the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.

Is he right? Should we wish for misfortune or seek it out? Or is the Chief Justice merely telling us to make the best of bad situations?

I believe misfortune is necessary for developing the skills and attitudes to thrive. As the Chief Justice notes, bad things will happen to us. As captured in the poem “Richard Cory ”, no one lives a charmed life even when it appears they do. Misfortune can bring us down or we can learn and thrive because of it. We can choose either path. We are more likely to choose well if we embrace adversity, recognize its value, and are prepared to turn it to our advantage. Suffering may be necessary for happiness and living well.

My view of misfortune is based on experience. I am glad for the ill fortune in my life. Objectively I have been lucky in life and would never say I was disadvantaged. But some seriously bad things have happened to me. I could write a bleak narrative of my life if I chose to. At times it felt bleak. I have experienced everything the Chief Justice mentions and more. But looking back I see how the bad times enriched my life and helped me grow.

Less Fear

Adversity can lessen fear of the future. We see bad things happen to others and fear it could be us. Early in life I wondered if I could survive the problems I saw others experiencing. Adversity taught me I could survive tough times. As the Stoics observe, “there is nothing good or bad but our thinking makes it so.” My fears were lessened after learning the importance of attitude and developing other coping skills. I know I can deal with the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” That is a gift.

Gaining Knowledge

Misfortune and adversity help gain knowledge. That knowledge is part of the wisdom necessary for thriving. Much knowledge is learned through experience. One can learn from books and teachers, but that learning is often conceptual and superficial. It lacks the context, richness, and power of knowledge gained through experience. I have come to believe that good fortune often does not provide the necessary circumstances the enable many important life lessons.

For example, a person can read about forgiveness or listen to lectures or sermons. A person can understand the concept, even explain it to others, without direct experience. Compare that level of knowledge with the that gained through experience. Imagine someone causing you great harm. Suppose that person does not ask for or deserve forgiveness. Then consider trying to forgive that person. Your understanding of forgiveness will be deeper and more meaningful after being in that situation. Whether you can forgive or not, your understanding of forgiveness will be much greater.

Death is another example. We can empathize with someone when they lose a person close to them. We can be supportive and kind. But how much better are we at empathizing and supporting our friends and family after we have lost someone close. Our knowledge of loss and grief and how to help is qualitatively different. As a Queen Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid says “Knowing pain, I can learn to help the pain of others.”

As a teenager I lost a state swimming championship because a judge disqualified me unfairly, enabling his son would win the race. That was unfair and I would rather it had not happened. But living through this undeserved situation gave me a deeper knowledge of people and how to handle these situations. I learned to protest the decision appropriately. But then I learned to accept results I could not change and to move on. There is no benefit in getting mad, harboring resentment, or attacking the swimmer or his dad. It was a stoic lesson for me long before I knew what stoicism was.

I experienced the full range of misfortune that surrounds a family of an alcoholic and drug addict. I saw sides of life I would rather have avoided, including early and tragic death. I wish much would have been different. Yet I learned valuable lessons about people, including myself, which made me a wiser and better person. These lessons changed my future behavior and decisions and had a significant and possibly life altering impact on others. It is the type of learning that only happens by experiencing tragedy.

Developing and Practicing Virtues

Tough times provide opportunities to develop and practice virtues. We can gain knowledge from adversity but what matters is applying knowledge to action. It is not enough to know what a virtue is or to aspire to be good. It is being virtuous that counts. It takes practice to develop virtues. Frequent repetition is necessary for virtue just as it is for any other skill.

Bad situations provide the best environment for developing certain virtues. It was only through adversity that I developed an ability to forgive. There is no reason to forgive if no one has harmed you. You need something bad to happen to develop this skill. It is in the middle of several difficult situations that I realized I needed to forgive to avoid having the bad situation make me forever miserable. Knowledge was the first part but then I needed to apply that knowledge and forgive. I had to work at it. I had to practice. Those painful experiences were necessary for developing what skill I have. That ability has enriched my life and lead to more inner peace. I still need to practice but now I have a solid base of experience to draw upon.

I have experienced serious health problems. Those experiences gave me the opportunity to develop skills and virtues that I might not have developed. I needed the skills to recover. Then those skills helped me live better after recovery. Skills such as persistence (do your physical therapy even when you don’t want to), positive attitude (being angry doesn’t help recovery), and empathy (now I know what others go through) are developed most fully during tough times.

Adversity creates an environment where developing certain virtues are essential if you are going to survive or have a shot at a happy and meaningful life. Virtues become necessities rather than merely aspirations.

Seeking Adversity

Should we seek out adversity if there is so much to be gained? Should we put ourselves in bad situations to better ourselves?

In most cases that is not necessary. Bad things will happen to everyone. Look beyond the surface of any person, any family, and you will find misfortune and even tragedy. Those with seemingly perfect lives are often living a different reality.

What is important is that we are ready to take advantage of what happens and learn from it. We want just enough misfortune to learn important lessons. We don’t need more.

There are situations where seeking some types of adversity is wise. For example, choosing to safely challenge ourselves physically and emotionally can help us learn skills such as endurance and mental toughness. I like to backpack. I know climbing thousands of feet at high altitude with a heavy pack on snow will make me physically miserable. But doing that develops important skills useful in other parts of life.  

There are other examples where voluntarily choosing to challenge ourselves and experience hardship is worthwhile. Perhaps it is taking a difficult work assignment that we know will expose us to hardship. We may choose to get a degree that will involve sacrifice. We should not shy away from challenges where there is a significant potential reward. But we don’t want to be foolish and take needless and substantial risks just to see if we can do it.

Being Receptive to the Benefits of Adversity

Benefitting from adversity does not happen automatically. Some people only experience the downsides of bad situations. It helps having an attitude that good can come from bad. We have a choice to let our emotions run and be angry and miserable when bad things happen. Or we can choose to make the best of it and to look for the opportunities to develop ourselves.

Being proactive helps. We can mentally prepare ourselves for bad times. We can ready ourselves to recognize the opportunities of misfortune. We should ask ourselves “What can I learn from this?” and “How can I become a better person because of this?’ As the Chief Justice noted, whether a person benefits from misfortune depends on whether they can see the lessons to be learned.

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