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Thank you (really) for the adversity

This holiday season, more than others, I am seriously thinking about thankfulness. Not thankfulness despite this year’s adversity, but thankfulness because of it (and for having overcome it, of course). I say this as someone who went through Covid-19 (a mild case, along with my wife and two kids), and who has experienced more of a lockdown than most, living in Bogota, Colombia. At one point in Bogota, people were only allowed to leave their homes for a short stroll, or for groceries, depending on their ID number (and it looks like we may be going back to that soon).

I am of course aware that I am more privileged than most this year: My extended family is healthy and alive, I have meaningful work, I have begun researching and planning my second book, I have read a lot, I began exercising daily (well, almost), and I am now spending the holidays visiting family in DC, among other positives.

Other people are less convinced that thankfulness is in order, despite having had an easier time. Here in the US, some people think just wearing a face mask is an affront to freedom, and they need to be convinced that wearing one is reasonable. Yesterday, I saw a sign at the door of a restaurant that read “no shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service” to emphasize that wearing a mask is just as necessary as wearing shoes.

Aside from people’s varied experiences with and reactions to the pandemic, the key issue here is whether you can grow from having experienced adversity, and how open you are to that growth. Growth and learning come from pain and discomfort. Freedom is not just a catchphrase; it comes with sacrifice and a sense of responsibility toward others.

Epictetus, the stoic philosopher, had something very appropriate to say about the type of adversity we have all faced this past year:

“Whoever chafes at the conditions dealt by fate is unskilled in the art of life. Whoever bears with them nobly and makes wise use of the results…deserves to be considered good.”

For Epictetus what is important is to be “neither broken by present circumstance, nor afraid of the future.” That is a big ask for people who have lost loved ones or their livelihoods this year. It is also a challenge for ambitious, high achieving people with lofty goals who have felt side swiped by the pandemic. But being resilient becomes more doable if we try to stay grounded, regardless of how materially successful we are.

These are times when we must learn to cherish what we have and lower our sights to focus on being healthy, making sacrifices, and enjoying simple things. This does not mean giving up, or taking the easy way out, or any number of thoughts of defeat that people come up with when they hear the expression “when life gives you lemons, make some lemonade”. In the end, they think, lemonade is still settling for less. This explains why in a country of driven go getters like America, the idea of wearing a mask may signal defeat to so many people, instead of seeing it as a responsible sacrifice.

But enduring the negative is also a precondition for greatness and success. In fact, progress comes after enduring pain or giving up something pleasant. Or as C.S. Lewis more elegantly put it:

“Hardships prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary life.

Carl Jung, the celebrated Swiss psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst went even further when he said:

“The foundation of all mental illness is the avoidance of true suffering.”

In our prosperous realities we often try to avoid discomfort, which makes us less resilient, and less prepared for the future (and less free, by the way). So be thankful, learn from adversity, enjoy simplicity, and make some sacrifices (yes, that means putting on your face mask). These lessons may be the best presents we can all receive at the end of this year. They are the best gifts I am getting.

What I’m (Re) Reading 

All this talk about adversity, how to endure it, and what meaning to derive from it brings us very directly to Voltaire’s 1759 French satire “Candide: or the Optimist” which I read last month for the first time.

This short novel tells the story of Candide, a young man who led a sheltered and idyllic life until he was thrust into one disaster after another, including living through the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and subsequent tsunami, seeing friends executed, learning that the love of his life was raped and kidnapped, and being forced to kill others to survive, among a number of compounding misfortunes.

In the book, Voltaire pokes fun at the optimism advocated by Gottfried Leibniz who at the time promoted the idea that “all [that happens] is for the best.” The book’s characters are constantly searching for meaning in adversity, and for the best way to live their lives.

Without giving away the ending, the book advances the profound idea that we must accept the evil and adversity in the world and focus on the practical. The book recommends that in the face of evil “we must cultivate our garden” – literally focus on the simple things, and on being useful. As one character, the Turk, explains, tending his land is what gives him meaning. “I cultivate [it] with my children; our work keeps at bay the three great evils: boredom, vice and necessity.” If we can all just avoid those evils, we will do fine. In fact, we could do much worse.