“If you are kicking up a storm, don’t expect clear sailing” (P P Sullivan)
Although some people allow adversity to bend or break their spirits, others swiftly adapt to their new context and overcome the opposition. The skill to adapt and find opportunities in difficult situations is a sure test of character and ingenuity. Ralph Waldo Emerson pertinently noted: “As soon as there is life there is danger”. Whilst true, many of life’s struggles are short-term and terminate quickly as a person finds a job, recovers from influenza or finds healing for a broken relationship. Some forms of adversity, however, are long-term and linger for an extended period of time – the loss of a loved-one, a physical ailment that causes disability, a painful set of family relational circumstances or a tragic accident. These lengthy types of adversity are used by some as excuses for retreat or a lack of progress. They concede defeat and are overcome with sorrow. They are stuck.
Adversity, however, does not need to be a life-destroying intrusion. Edward Ziegler, (Message of the Maples), when faced with a series of setbacks that added up to a sorrow he wasn’t sure he could master, recounts the story of seeking wisdom from Rev. Edgar N Jackson. Ziegler knew him as a wise man – he had heard him speak before and had read many of his books – so now made his way to find Edgar’s farm in Vermont to seek help. Jackson apparently had been struck down with a severe stroke, leaving him paralysed on his right side and unable to speak. The prognosis was bad, yet within a few weeks he had regained his ability to talk and was determined to recover more of his faculties. He rose to greet Ziegler who proceeded to tell Jackson of his pain.
“Then, in a sense, you’re grief-stricken”, he said.
“But I haven’t lost anyone close to me”, protested Ziegler.
Jackson answered: “Nevertheless, what you’re going through is related to grief. What’s essential is to mourn your losses fully and find solace by learning to live with them. People who don’t,” he added, “wind up bitter and disillusioned by sorrow. They’re unable to find solace. But others who creatively use the act of mourning can gain new sensitivity and a richer faith. That’s why you so often hear that we have to talk out our feelings, express our emotions. This is part of the mourning process. Only then can healing follow”.
Jackson led Ziegler outdoors to a group of bare sugar maples, standing firm against the cold wind that tugged at their barren branches. Ziegler noticed rusty barbed wire strung at some height between the tall trees. After a poignant pause, Jackson explained: “Sixty years ago, the man who planted these trees used them to fence in this pasture and saved a lot of work digging fence pole holes. It was a trauma for the young trees to have barbed wire hammered into their tender bark. Some fought it. Others adapted. So you can see here, the barbed wire has been accepted and incorporated into the life of this tree – but not of that one over there”. He pointed to an old tree severely disfigured by the wire. The tree nearby showed no marks at all – instead of the long, anguished scars, all that appeared was the wire entering one side and emerging on the other, almost as if it had been inserted by a drill bit. Jackson concluded: “What internal forces make it possible to overcome an injury like barbed wire, rather than allowing it to distort the rest of life? How can one person transform grief into new growth instead of allowing it to become a life-destroying intrusion?”
Back inside the house, Jackson smiled and noted: “If we are wise in the way we handle grief, if we can mourn promptly and fully, the barbed wire doesn’t win. We can overcome any sorrow and life can be lived triumphantly”.
Stephen R Covey, of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People fame, notes the following on adversity: “Adversity always insists that we respond to a series of questions: Will we adapt, do what we’ve got to do and move forward, or will we allow the opposition to win out? Will we be transmitters or transformers? Will we find opportunity and silver amongst the clouds, or will we find storms in every sunset?”
Adversity is a challenging foe, but opposition is the stage upon which acts of adaptability are performed.