People Power: Learning from adversity - June 2022

By Sam Allman

Though we are safe and far from the conflict, my heart is saddened by what is happening in Ukraine. The death and destruction are unfathomable to me. I struggle to find a more horrendous experience than war. Life is hard enough without it. And when the war with Russia is over, the Ukrainians will have to do what survivors through the centuries have done. Despite many losing family members, friends or everything they have, they will have to start over and figure out how to continue living.

Thank goodness not all of us will experience the horrors of war, but if we have not become one yet, we are all still destined to become survivors of some sort. I don’t mean to depress you, but it will happen no matter how hard you try to avoid it: you will become a survivor of at least the hard knocks of life.

A survivor is anyone who faces and overcomes adversity, hardship, illness or physical or emotional trauma. This is where some of the most important characteristics of “people power” and flourishing come into play. Survivors keep going despite opposition and setbacks. They may want to quit, but they will persevere and persist-and may even excel-under terrible conditions. They make the most of their current situation. They don’t just exist or subsist, they thrive and flourish. They exhibit a mental toughness that is essential for success.

What’s interesting is that mental toughness may come as the result of surviving, rather than having been acquired before the event. Many people exposed to the worst traumas do not experience psychiatric disorders. Instead, they are transformed for the better from their battles with life’s toughest challenges. Drs. Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined the term “post-traumatic growth” to capture this phenomenon, defining it as the positive psychological change that is experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances. This reminds me of what Friedrich Nietzsche said, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Good things can emerge from terrible experiences.

A key factor that allows us to turn adversity into advantage is the extent to which we fully explore our thoughts and feelings surrounding a difficult or tragic event. As a child, did you ever take a stupid comment that a classmate said about you and let it define you? The meaning we attach can affect us negatively, positively or not at all. We have control over how we respond, whether we are aware of it or not. I have observed that even in the same family, two siblings can experience the exact same event, but their perceptions, their insights and its effect can be totally different.

We each have a challenge. Since none of us had control over where or to whom we were born, how we were raised and nurtured or over our genetic profile, not one of us will begin adulthood on an equal footing. That includes even those born within the same family. The challenge is from almost the day we are born to exercise that “last great freedom,” as Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl puts it in Man’s Search for Meaning: We get to choose our response to every happening or situation we experience. We create narratives to explain to ourselves “what” and “why” and the insights we are having because of it. That response or insight can shape us either negatively or positively. Because of our thought processes, some of these happenings turn into defining moments, critical events that shape and mold us into whom we eventually become. That’s why child abuse of any kind can be so detrimental to the development of human potential. Humans attach insights to their life experiences, and children with immature minds are not capable of attaching the type of insights needed to become fully functioning humans, without nurturing adults helping them along.

Depending on how we respond to an experience or event will determine whether it becomes defining. Some will not affect us at all, like water rolling off a duck’s back. Other seemingly minor, innocuous events can have dramatic impacts on our psyches and our person. It depends on the insights and meaning we attach to those experiences. The problem is our perception or the meaning that we assign may be totally incorrect or off-base. A minor event becomes a critical one because of our immaturity, poor cognition, reactive emotions or lack of understanding. We must always ask ourselves, “Could I be wrong?” Therapy can alleviate suffering from prior traumas by helping us look at them differently, apply new meaning and seek out what was learned. “In some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning,” Frankl wrote.

In recent years, psychologists have begun to understand the psychological processes that turn adversity into advantage, and what is becoming clear is that these traumas create a restructuring that is actually necessary for growth to occur. It is precisely when the foundational structure of the self is shaken that we are in the best position to pursue new opportunities in our lives. Among others, surviving adversity can strengthen at least five of the most important “people power” and mental toughness skills.

1. Adaptability: the capacity to adjust readily to different situations and to change attitude and behavior to handle new challenges. In a crisis, flexibility is the rule. This characteristic put humans at the top of the food chain.

2. Resilience: the capacity to absorb high levels of change while displaying minimal dysfunctional behavior. It’s the ability to rebound-to bend, not break. This characteristic is exemplified by persistence. It’s the attitude that Winston Churchill talked about in his famous 1941 speech to the students of Harrow: “Never give in, never, never, never, never.”

3. Faith: the trust that a higher power has a plan and will look after you, whether you believe in God or not. You will be steered and guided through difficult times. Faith will give you increased power and confidence to persevere. In order to do anything, you must first believe it is possible.

4. Hope: the capacity to believe and expect that things will get better in the toughest of times. Belief and expectation are the two factors of hope. According to Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Jerome Groopman, these factors release neurochemicals that mimic the effects of morphine. As a result, “Hope helps us overcome hurdles that we otherwise could not scale. It moves us forward to a place where healing can occur. For those who have hope, it may help some live longer, and it will help all to live better.”

5. Purpose: the capacity to personally understand the “why” or the meaning and mission of your life. Purpose gives you the power and drive to persevere in the face of incredible adversity. “He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear almost any ‘how,’” Nietzsche wrote.

In the 1950s, Curt Richter, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, did a famous drowning rat psychology experiment. Though cruel, this experiment demonstrated the power of hope and resilience in overcoming difficult situations.

His experiment focused on how long a rat could tread water. He placed rats into buckets filled with water to see how long they swam before giving up and sinking to the bottom. The average time was 15 minutes. He then introduced a range of variables into the experiment that yielded some interesting results. Using both wild and domesticated rats, he found that introducing hope would significantly increase the survival time. To do that, he would rescue the rats as they gave up due to exhaustion and started to drown. After rescuing them, he would hold them for a while and help them recover. He then placed them back into the buckets and started the experiment over again. And he discovered that when the rats were placed back into the water, they swam for much longer-up to 60 hours. The only thing that had changed was that they had been saved before, so they had hope this time. Dr. Richter wrote that “the rats quickly learn that the situation is not actually hopeless” and that “after elimination of hopelessness, the rats do not die.”

Though humans and rats are very different beings, when both have hope, they have higher levels of perseverance and resilience. They will keep fighting when they feel there is a chance of success or rescue. A range of other experiments have also supported this. Dr. Calhoun is a researcher, writer and lecturer on post-traumatic growth. “What is remarkable is how often growth happens and how apparently ordinary people achieve extraordinary wisdom through their struggle with circumstances that are initially aversive in extreme,” he says.

Sometimes, I wonder how many of the mental health issues in our country, for example, school shootings, suicides and drug abuse, are because of our wealth and the indulgence it brings and us seeking to protect our children from responsibility and adversity. Research confirms that surviving adversity increases, among others, adaptability, resilience, faith, hope and purpose. In addition, these other areas of growth have been reported to spring from adversity: a greater appreciation of life; greater appreciation and strengthening of close relationships; increased empathy, which leads to compassion and altruism; the identification of new possibilities or a purpose in life; greater awareness and utilization of personal strengths; enhanced spiritual development; creative growth.

My goal in writing this column is not to get you to want more adversity but to appreciate what you have had and possibly think again about some of those negative events from which you have not identified any benefit. Maybe you will find some beneficial meaning to that negative experience. It could be cathartic for you.

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