Resilience in Adversity
James 2:1-4, 12 Jn. 18:19-24; 19:1-3
We read these days of a trend among the rising generation to fold in the face of a sustained headwind. Usually, writers will start with the example of children taking college courses that they find exceedingly difficult. Rather than gutting it out when they get back their C- which with grade inflation is really a D- they just drop the course completely.
Psychologists say that they are so image conscious that they have absorbed the moral, “Look good and take no risks”. The claim is that my generation has coddled their children enough and that we have the resources to do it that the rising generation is not allowed to fail. And by not allowing them to fail, we are actually handicapping the next generation as they evolve towards independence.
It is a subject that was interesting enough that I decided to raise it with a group that we graduated college with when we were together a couple years ago. I asked them where this impulse for responsibility came from in their own lives.
One of the guys described his childhood growing up on Long Island. His father was a businessman in financial services on Wall Street who was always gone, either at work late or traveling which was much more extensive in that era. He hardly ever saw his Dad during the week.
His parent’s marriage failed sometime in Middle School and the kids lived with their mother in a big old ramshackle house that started falling apart for lack of repairs on it when he was in high school. But they had a great hang out space in the house with an super pool table, so his friends used to congregate there and they pretty much had free range to play music loud and decorate as they pleased.
His mother was always a pretty heavy drinker but sometime during his early years in High School, she passed over a line. He would have his friends over during lunch hour in High School because you were allowed to leave high school anytime you wanted. And he would come home routinely with his friends as his mother slept in the living room. She either didn’t feel well from the previous night or she was already brined by the middle of the day.
His brothers and sisters pretty much raised themselves. There were no real curfews at night. His father was starting a new family and his mother eventually died relatively young punishing her liver. He applied to colleges by himself, which was the norm for the generation. His dad paid his tuition but never once went to see him in college.
He started his own business in High School and ran it through college, so he could have his own money. He bought his own car, paid for his trip to Europe abroad, paid for his own graduate school and lived on his own from the time he was 18.
He took care of his younger brothers and sisters and would visit them when they were at college and did things like show up for their sports events and take them out for dinner.
He told me that in his thirties, he had a recurring dream that he was shipwrecked on an island with a bunch of kids from summer camp and he was the counselor. Some of the kids were hurt, some of them anxious, some of them just whining and he tried to take care of them but he couldn’t keep up with the number of kids and all of their needs and he would wake up in the middle of the night overwhelmed, worried that he was going to forget some important meeting that he was supposed to be at.
And today, his children, all in college now, have been thoroughly cared for, probably overly cared for. His children have never had jobs, they have internships… They were given their car… They are flown to family events during college… They got a credit card to travel abroad.
Listening to his story and others like it, I was reminded again, how much wilder the 70’s were than today. But, the main point, what strikes me about every generation, is how we have to respond to the adversity we are born into and it becomes something of a determinative life mission, even though we are only partially aware of how determinative it really is in our lives. The bottom line is that my friend adopted a life mission of taking care of others… because his mother didn’t take enough care of him.”
The philosopher Frederick Nietzche once said, “To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities — I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not — that one endures.”[i]
Nietzche exaggerates perhaps, but not by much. We don’t get to avoid hardship or suffering. It is not only a given in our spiritual lives, it is a requirement for excellence. We have to try, fail, try again, learn and keep at it over and over to become an expert in whatever enterprise we try to test ourselves in.
This week, the headlines in the paper are about the computer designed by Google to play the game “Go” that beat one of the world’s top players. What was the secret of the computer design? The computer played the game over and over and over- ten thousand times, hundreds of thousands of time, millions of times- until it had seen every variation of the game and the programmers were able to design it to teach itself. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Says the old adage, “Practice, practice, practice.”
And the character trait that we hope to develop in the face of adversity is resilience, the ability to bounce back from failure or setback, disappointment and grief, to thrive in the midst of adversity.
Christians have the example of Jesus. He is depicted in the gospels as a person of high moral purpose, a person of spiritual depth. Yet he is tried unjustly. People put words in his mouth. The authorities accused him of being a threat to the stability of the social order and they sought a way to have him dispatched. Unjustly charged, he is humiliated, beaten, mocked and finally tortured to death. And he is innocent of any specific charge.
These are the things in his life that are beyond his control, just as there are arbitrary things in your life that you were born into that are really beyond your control. I’m sorry that you have so many relatives that suffered from addictions and now you have to deal with your addictive issues. I’m sorry that depression runs in your people. I’m sorry that you were born into a racist society as an African-American. I’m sorry for those Syrians that are born into a social chaos of violent civil war. And you are sorry for yourself as well. I’m quite sure you know what you are sorry about because it is what you think about when you are with your own thoughts and you tell yourself what you are sorry about, what you didn’t get, what you wish you had been born with.
Dealing with that part of yourself is one of the hardest things we actually have to do in our own personal development. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them… But the line dividing good and evil- the dividing line between what we have to accept and that which we must overcome- cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart.”
Whatever it is that we have to overcome, whatever it is that we have to change in our own character to make us more balanced, to overcome the deficits that we inherited, is the most difficult personal challenge we face. It is through this that we start to understand what it means to be human. It is the beginning of our self-knowledge.
Alcoholics Anonymous has the prayer, “God, rant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It calls to mind the Medieval Jewish scholar Solomon ibn Gabrol who taught that wisdom and peace lay in “being reconciled to the uncontrollable.”[ii] Part of our wisdom is realizing that we don’t get to control everything and living in that reality.
But what we can master, our life challenge, is ourselves. The Greek philosophers called it a commitment to developing excellence in ourselves, character in ourselves. Hindu’s would say to each other “Namaste”. It means “I respect the divinity in you.” So a lot of spiritual people will say, it is cultivating the Spirit of God within us, infusing our character with strength. These days, the researchers in our psychology departments call it ‘flourishing’. When we have character, when we practice self-mastery and resilience to pick ourselves up from setback and defeat through a courage that overcomes our fear, we flourish in our living. It is the spiritual goal of our lives, whether we happen to find ourselves at the levers of power, surrounded by perquisites of our choosing or whether we are beset by disease, social chaos and injustice.
It is interesting that when we look back on our lives, material comfort and security, are remarkably not that important in tapping into the deeper fulfillment we can find. We know that the people that live from the well of deeper meaning have found a spiritual purpose, especially in meaningful relationships.
Eric Greitens says that this is actually what makes the experience of being a Navy Seal so powerful. SEAL training, as you know, is the most challenging physical training in the world. But the physical difficulty is designed to make your character stronger.
Greitens says that SEAL’s have a clarity of moral purpose that is as simple and profound as we humans are given to know, to keep each other alive and accomplish the mission. As Jesus said in the gospel of John, “Greater love hath no man than that he would lay down his life for another.” And that simple immediate purpose is shared through being in a unit with the most excellent soldiers in the world, a comradeship that will never be replace in civilian life.
Greiten’s has an important observation about our veterans that return to civilian life and are subject to depression, drug and alcohol abuse, boredom and ennui. He says that they are suffering not so much from PTSD, the trauma of war, as the fact that they lack that clear moral purpose and a deeper camaraderie back home.
And we civilians don’t know how to respond to what they have been through, so we thank them and we try to do things for them to make their life easier. But spiritually, Greitens says that what they really need is a challenge in civilian life that can somewhat approximate the moral purpose and camaraderie that they knew in the service.
And you too. When you look back on your life, what were you doing that you felt really alive? What moral purpose animated you? Who were the people that inspired you, that motivated you to keep going in spite of the difficulty?
You don’t need more comfort around you to tap into your deeper self. You don’t need half of the diversions that you deploy in your weekly routine. You don’t need more alcohol or drugs that give you that short break from your tensions and anxieties that attend your life.
What are you here for now?[iii] May you be blessed with new meaning. May you deploy courage in the face of the headwinds of your life and overcome your fears with renewed purpose. May you become more resilient and flourish in spite of it all. Amen.
[i] From “The Will to Power”
[ii] This point comes from the book by Navy Seal Eric Grietens Resilience (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2015) It is a good book. Greitens combines insights from Navy Seal training with his reading of the classics at Oxford to introduce readers to the Greek ideal of an ‘excellent’ life. This point comes from pps. 36-38.
[iii] I got this idea from Greitens on p. 62. It is the question that soldiers ask themselves upon returning to civilian life.