Wednesday, 23 April 2014

It's All About You

Up to now, we've talked about the challenges of running marathons, the adversity involved in establishing a professional football club and the meaning and purpose there can be in life where there is much physical suffering. It seems to be a broad range of definitions of what adversity could possibly be. So what do we mean by adversity?

Looking the word up in the dictionary gives you a range of definitions which will probably make you go “Aha, I thought it meant that.” After all, there are no surprises in “misfortune, hardship, suffering ..” etc. etc. We know what those words mean. Don't we?

Perhaps it's not as easy as we first thought. After all, what level of misfortune are we talking about? How much hardship do we take before it becomes adversity for the purposes of this blog? Is suffering a three set to love defeat at tennis or a really painful illness? The actor, model and Paralympian athlete, Aimee Mullins, has put it much better than I ever could. She said in a TED lecture in 2009 that

There is adversity and challenge in life, and it's all very real and relative to every single person”

She was born without shin bones and has gone on to achieve much in her life, including speaking on the value of each and every human being, whether supposedly disabled or not. She is not championing her adversity in life over and above that of someone else. The point is, she's saying, is what does it feel like to you? Does your situation feel tough? Is it stressful? Would you define it as adversity?

You don't have to have been physically abused, kept prisoner against your will or be suffering from a terminal illness. If you're just fighting to get health or education provision for your child, caring for a sick relative, trying to keep your business afloat, being bullied at work or one of a thousand other challenging scenarios, then you are facing adversity in a way personal to you. As Aimee Mullins said, it's real to you.

The point of this blog is about learning about how other people have met adversity. In her TED lecture, Aimee Mullins added this

the question isn't whether or not you're going to meet adversity, but how you're going to meet it”

We can learn from each other. We can learn how other people's challenges can inform our own. Whatever other people have faced, they can pass on that learning. My adversity with M.E. is perhaps not on the same level as someone who has terminal cancer but we can both learn from each other. Your challenge with paying the mortgage is perhaps more commonplace than someone who survived a concentration camp but it doesn't stop that adversity being any more personal to you. Your adversity is real and for help you can look to people who have made a great learning experience out of divorce, establishing themselves in a foreign country or walking to the North Pole. Equally, those people can look to you and how you have met your challenges.

So, this isn't a blog about running marathons, football adversity, surviving concentration camps or physical abuse. It's about all kinds of adversity and, most importantly, it's about your adversity. If you're willing to learn and can share what you've learned, then this is a blog for you. I'll leave the last words to Aimee Mullins and as you read you can maybe better understand why this blog is called “Thrive”.

The human ability to adapt is an interesting thing because people have continually wanted to talk to me about overcoming adversity. I'm going to make an admission: this phrase never sat right with me and I always felt uneasy trying to answer people's questions about it and I think I'm starting to figure out why. Implicit in this phrase of "overcoming adversity" is the idea that success, or happiness, is about emerging on the other side of a challenging experience unscathed or unmarked by the experience, as if my successes in life have come about from an ability to sidestep or circumnavigate the presumed pitfalls of a life with prosthetics, or what other people perceive as my disability. But, in fact, we are changed. We are marked, of course, by a challenge, whether physically, emotionally or both and I'm going to suggest that this is a good thing. Adversity isn't an obstacle that we need to get around in order to resume living our life. It's part of our life.”

This year we celebrate the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, and it was 150 years ago, when writing about evolution, that Darwin illustrated, I think, a truth about the human character. To paraphrase: it's not the strongest of the species that survives, nor is it the most intelligent that survives; it is the one that is most adaptable to change. Conflict is the genesis of creation. From Darwin's work, amongst others, we can recognize that the human ability to survive and flourish is driven by the struggle of the human spirit through conflict into transformation. So, again, transformation, adaptation, is our greatest human skill. And, perhaps, until we're tested, we don't know what we're made of. Maybe that's what adversity gives us: a sense of self, a sense of our own power. So, we can give ourselves a gift. We can re-imagine adversity as something more than just tough times. Maybe we can see it as change. Adversity is just change that we haven't adapted to yet.”


  1. I find the ability to change and therefore adapt to adversity becomes tricky (and triggers the stress for me) if the adversity itself is unclear. Take physical pain, if I know what's causing the pain I can adapt and cope. Am sure it would be the opposite for some, just the way we're wired up.

  2. I think that's a really interesting point Rachel and one a lot of people (including me) struggle with. It's the fear of the unknown and if it's to do with a type of physical pain that we haven't experienced before then, being only human, we do tend to get worried about it. It's our safety mechanism that works so well it gets us to go to the doctor's. So it can be a good thing. It's when it becomes debilitating that it doesn't serve us well. If we have a long wait to see a doctor, it is of course going to be on our minds and it wouldn't be helpful to say simply, "Don't worry about it." In these sorts of situations, the kind of thoughts that are sometimes helpful are about "What's the worst that can happen?", "How likely is that?", "What then is a more likely scenario?" and "Can I live with that?" I struggle with this though particularly when children's illness is concerned. Despite knowing that the likely scenario is not an especially serious one, I still somehow get really stressed because I fear the worst! The type of questions above though have certainly helped me to calm myself and get through difficult times with the kids. They're CBT questions but anyone can construct their own by simply questioning the thoughts they are having. It can be fun!