We do not seek it nor immediately welcome it, but every one of us faces adversity many times in life. Whether it be a serious illness, financial difficulties or the loss of a significant relationship, at some point we all come to a place of helplessness and even hopelessness.
And yet, even the most painful of circumstances can lead us to great knowledge and personal growth. The same set of obstacles can face two people with totally different outcomes. One may be crushed and the other may become stronger. The difference is a result of how the adversity is viewed and how the person responds. An unknown author told the following story, The Old Mule, about facing adversity:
Once upon a time a farmer owned an old mule who tripped and fell into the farmer's well. The farmer heard the mule braying and was unable to figure out how to bring up the old animal. It grieved him that he could not pull the animal out. He'd been a good worker around the farm. Although the farmer sympathized with the mule, he called his neighbors together and told them what had happened. He had them help haul dirt to bury the old mule in the well and quietly put him out of his misery.
At first, the old mule was puzzled, but as the farmer and his neighbors continued shoveling and the dirt hit his back, he had a thought: he ought to shake off the dirt and step up. And he did just that.
"Shake it off and step up ... shake it off and step up ... shake it off and step up." Even though he took painful blows of dirt and fought panic, he just kept right on shaking it off and stepping up!
It wasn't long before the old mule stepped up and over the lip of that well. What could have buried him actually blessed him ... all because of the manner in which he handled his adversity.
When adversity strikes, our first reactions may be self-pity or panic, but we can also consider other responses to the situation.
Accept the reality of the adversity. Come to terms with the fact that adversity is a part of life. M. Kathleen Casey, a Canadian politician, said something simple but powerful: "Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional." And so, accepting the problem can mean something other than suffering. We can accept it and choose to be strong in the face of it.
Look for the positive. Motivational speaker, Helena Nyman, states, "As hard as it may seem, adversity can actually be a positive thing. There is a saying that every single thing happens for a reason and whatever does not kill us makes us stronger. Think about it, if there were no challenges in life, it would be a fairly boring place to be. We would not win anything and we would not feel the satisfaction that we achieve once we have come through adversity. Whenever you hear that little voice in your head which says, "I cannot do this," simply remind yourself that you can and do not give in to the fear."
Develop internal resources. Keep those people and things close to you that give you hope and courage. Prepare yourself mentally, much like a warrior going to battle, to face the adverse situation head-on. Find the clarity you will need to recognize the opportunity that lies in difficulty. Cultivate faith. Believe that there is hope and that there will be light at the end of the tunnel.
Develop external resources. Build your support system of family and friends. You will need their encouragement and support, but also their words of wisdom - you may be surprised to find that many others have faced your same adversity.
Learn from others who have overcome adversity. There are many inspiring stories in books, magazines and Websites that tell how human beings have moved beyond seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Helen Keller was virtually imprisoned in a silent and sightless world as a child, yet she became an acclaimed author, political activist and the first deaf and blind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree. Winston Churchill was a stutterer and performed poorly in school as a youngster, yet he became the prime minister of the United Kingdom and was one of the most influential political leaders in the 20th century. Noted musician Seal, a native of Nigeria, contracted a rare form of lupus that left patterns of dark scars across his face. He did not let himself be silenced in an industry that emphasizes physical image; he overcame disfigurement with his dazzling talent.
Instead of bemoaning the undesirable circumstances that come our way, we can choose to believe, through soul-searching, meditation and prayer, that we are equipped to face and navigate the choppy waters of adversity. We may have been graciously given an opportunity to develop much needed wisdom and strength.
Miriam Keith is consumer support coordinator of the Washington County Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Board. Mental Health Matters appears on the Opinion page on the first Saturday of each month.