Pursuing Adversity

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“We could never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world.”

–Helen Keller

This isn’t something I planned to write about.

Tahoe pine
In fact, when it comes to avoiding struggle, I’d like to maintain my silence and let the subject pass right by. There are probably plenty of other things equally valuable I could choose. Which should prove how little I have to offer on this topic.

My wife will tell you I tend to talk big about facing challenges–so much so, she suspects I’m a masochist. But there’s a big difference between talking big about a widely-recognized principle of great writing, and living it. I’m a failure at joyfully embracing anything involving struggle. And I’m an expert at pretty much the opposite.

I do it without even thinking. Out of habit and probably simply by nature, when I have to do something hard or even mildly unpleasant to me (which is often even something pleasant to most people), I rarely consider criteria beyond whether it will be uncomfortable and how long it will last. And do I stop to think whether this impulse to avoid what’s difficult and challenging is really good for me?

How much longer does this piece have to be?

I’m not sure when it happened, but I tend to make my goal in life to escape it unscathed.

There’s in-born sin in me, and it’s rooted right here. The self-preservation instinct, a vestige of survival in my protective caveman brain senses a threat and begins either avoiding or eradicating.

Housework. Traffic. Hot car drives. The only good struggle is the one behind me.

Yet somehow I still manage to esteem the very successful people who have this curious disease of seeing challenges as opportunities. Yes, the poor sacks, I think. Oh, I click my tongue for you. If only I were more like you.

And thank goodness I’m not.

In fairness to myself, not wanting to die is an important default setting I have, especially when faced with a high ledge, sharp kitchen utensils, or the occasional distant tornado. I’m glad for the wisdom that convinces me to take the stairs rather than get in the empty elevator with the creepy drooling guy with a switchblade. Yet left unchecked, I suspect this protective caveman brain keeps me from some important discoveries.

Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn wrote, “Who wants to die? Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong.”

Tahoe conifer

Over our vacation we went to visit my parents and grandma at Lake Tahoe. There’s a tree that grows in the mountains of California that can endure centuries of severe conditions. Bristlecone pines have found ways to adapt to the adversity that actually extended its lifespan.

Having backpacked the wilderness many times with my family here, I might have learned this earlier had I been interested in something other than my discomfort. But my distaste for camping, the dirt, the food, lack of solitude, and now all of that far past and me living far away, it’s breaking in.

I’ve learned that another tree nearer home called the Modoc Cypress actually needs forest fires to reproduce. The cones remain closed for years and only open once the tree is killed in a wildfire. The seeds can then colonize the exposed soil and rise like a mythical Phoenix from the ashes. It’s currently listed as a vulnerable species because of fire suppression.

Modoc cypress conesSo suppressing forest fires is killing the trees.

I’ve actually collected such stories for years. Chickens who don’t fight their way out of their shells die earlier and are less resilient. Trees without winds don’t grow as strong. Kierkegaard: “With the help of the thorn in my foot, I spring higher than anyone with sound feet.” Yet failure-to-thrive has still run rampant through my system. I’m unambitious and dare-I-admit disobedient for avoiding discomfort.

I’ve got to stop considering adversity as horrible and disastrous. I’ve got to stop considering it altogether.

Sure, all adversity could be evidence of an adversary. But so what? He’s God’s devil.

Does it disrespect the devil to decide I don’t have to hand my new birthright over to him?

With the recent evidence of my mortality (okay, the gray in my temples), I’m wondering if maybe this little tendency shouldn’t be the next thing to go.

Flying insects undergo a death as pupa before receiving new life. Can I learn to face struggle and difficulty as necessary for my development? For the price of receiving my wings?

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

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2 thoughts on “Pursuing Adversity”

  1. Adversity is talked about and we know the “positive” effects it can have. Yet what I particularly like is the TOTAL honesty of your dialogue. Great piece of writing.

  2. Thanks, Mick! Appreciate the kind words.

    Hope you’re doing well–thanks for all you inspire in so many.

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