If you live long enough, you are going to face situations that will test your mettle. Here are some things to keep in mind so that when adversity strikes, you will be prepared.
After a life of relatively smooth sailing, the last few years have brought me some adversity. I lost my grandmother who practically raised me. A business that I had started failed due to lack of sufficient funds. My dishwasher malfunctioned and flooded my kitchen and basement. Both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer. And I got fired from a job by a woman who suddenly started to loathe my work after she figured out that I have a cute wife who is significantly younger than I am.
Having come out the other end of the storm, I have some observations that may help if you should ever find yourself facing a tough situation.
Our natural reaction when adversity strikes is to panic. The fight-or-flight reflex kicks in and our natural inclination is to either run away from the situation or lash out at the source of the adversity. Either option is usually a mistake.
Thus, the first step in dealing with adversity is not to panic. Panicking prevents you from seeing all the options. When you don’t see all the options, it is easy to make a bad choice. Fight-or-flight does have some relevance if you are being chased by a wild boar. For most other situations, the best thing to do is to be calm.
Reject negative thoughts and get the right mindset
When you go through adversity, the temptation is to start thinking disempowering thoughts. You must avoid these like the plague if you want to get through tough times.
Don’t get bitter. When things don’t go like you planned, it is easy to become bitter. This is especially true when things might be going swimmingly for all your friends.
The problem with bitterness is that it can poison a person’s entire life causing him to lose the good things he still has. A man who becomes bitter about his adversity runs the risk of alienating the people who truly love him—his wife and children. And I believe bitterness can even negatively effect a person’s health.
The best antidote to bitterness is to cultivate gratitude in your life. Every successful person I’ve ever talked to spends a portion of their day thinking about all the things that they are grateful for. If you are truly grateful, it is impossible to be bitter even in times of hardship.
Don’t feel cursed. In the midst of the trials I was going through my wife, in a moment of exasperation, asked me: “Do you think we are cursed?”
When things go wrong, it is easy to believe that there is some cosmic force that is opposing you. Whether that force is an indifferent universe or the gods, it is too vast to oppose. If you believe you are cursed, it makes you passive. That’s the exact opposite attitude you need to get through adversity.
Instead of feeling cursed, tackle each problem separately. If you are diagnosed with heart disease, work on improving your health. If you are harassed at work by a short, fat, mentally unstable harpy of a boss with swollen ankles, float your resume. But don’t turn your problems into battles against cosmic forces.
In summary, when you run into difficulty, the most important thing to overcome it is to adopt the right mindset. Be grateful for anything that is still good in your life and resolve to be active in fighting the problems.
Look at all your options
If you have the right mindset, you will be able to do the next step which is to consider all of your options. Even with the most terrible of problems, there may be some way to cope with the problem that may be tolerable. For example, I know a man with a gambling problem. He borrowed a large some of money from a mobster that he unwisely failed to repay. I am not certain of the details, but this man’s life is now in constant jeopardy.
This would be enough to drive many men to suicide, but this man has opted to survive. He chose to go on the lam. He now moves his family every year or two. One year, he is in Florida. The next he is in California. Even though he is a highly qualified electrical engineer, he does not work, presumably to stay under the radar. His family relies on his wife’s income. Despite everything, they seem to have a reasonably comfortable life.
In his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams relates how he lost his voice due to a rare neurological disorder. It was only after years of trying various things that he found a doctor who performed a cutting edge procedure that was able to solve the problem. But to do this, he had to stay open to investigating every option.
Don’t alienate your allies
John Donne wrote that “no man is an island.” Unfortunately, I’m the kind of person who tends to retreat into a metaphorical cave to solve my own problems. That’s a mistake. I might be resourceful, but I don’t have all the answers. While I was going through difficult periods, it was usually friends or family members who had information that helped me solve the problems.
When adversity hits, be kind to those who are closest to you, especially your family. Keep your friends in good repair. Avoid the temptation to be a rugged individualist.
Treat it like a game
A couple of years ago, Roosh published an article called Are We Living in a Computer Simulation? At the time, I dismissed the article because I’m a Catholic. I believe the universe is real.
Still, the concept of this life ultimately being a game or a computer simulation is a good paradigm. Every religious tradition treats this life as a temporary situation. In Christianity, the universe is a proving ground where we can decide whether we want to accept God’s offer to become his sons—divinization—or reject it and become denizens of hell. In Hinduism, this life is regarded as a delusion that we must wake up from. Even Stoicism envisions this life as a fleeting phenomenon that will lead to union with God, however vaguely the Stoics understood that union.
What every tradition seems to agree on is that how your life goes is less important than how you react in response to what happens. You might be less wealthy and famous than Mark Zuckerberg, but you are not in competition with him. Your job is to do your best in your situation.
This means cultivating detachment from this life. If your video game character is killed, you probably don’t get too upset. Similarly, reflecting on the temporary nature of the current world should lead you to not take it too seriously.
Another point on which all spiritual traditions agree is that adversity is a goad that forces us to change our character. Just like lifting weights forces our muscles to grow, adversity is the resistance that spurs our souls to grow. Without adversity, we would have flabby character.
In my own case, I can see how some of the things that I went through forced me to deal with some things in my life that I was ignoring. It proved to be a boot camp for my character.
For example, getting fired forced me to re-evaluate the whole idea of working for someone else. It led me to start another business that has doubled my earnings over what I was making while I was an employee. It also led me to start writing—something that I always wanted to do but never found time for.
Adversity is never pleasant when you are going through it but it brings rewards that you could never receive from a soft, indolent life.
I don’t want to leave you with the idea that it is possible to “conquer” every adversity. Sometimes, even the greatest general is routed. Even the healthiest man will one day die. But it is possible to meet every adversity and not be inwardly defeated. The best summary of this attitude is captured in the the poem Invictus, which was written by William Ernest Henley.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.