Homage to Adversity

After a recent spate of doctor appointments, nothing life-threatening, I experienced the annoyance that accompanies dealing with physical ailments.

I still expect my body will function like a well-oiled machine, and it’s frustrating when it malfunctions.

The curse or the beauty of aging is that we don’t feel as old as we actually are. So we hurl down a river in a canoe, play weekend football or decide to take up CrossFit.

Despite doing our best to maintain youth, everybody gets old—or at least, paradoxically, that’s the goal. Dealing with my physical complaints, although hardly qualifying as adversity, was a gentle reminder of the ongoing challenges, including aging, that we face in life.

Adversity is a fundamental, universal feature of being human, but coping with it is as unique as each individual. Sometimes, adverse circumstances are so devastating that people succumb to addiction or suicide. But some people are able to undergo misfortune and thrive. We all know people who have dealt with overwhelming challenges and whose perspectives have propelled them into resilience and joy.

I spoke to a young man last month who faced cancer when he was 11.

At this young age, he endured a year of chemotherapy, surgeries, blood transfusions and infections. He suffered through weakness and bouts of depression. What sustained him, he said, was living in gratitude.

He said, “Looking for the good doesn’t change the situation, but it does change the outlook. A positive outlook helps you handle the adversity.” Both he and his mother kept a gratitude journal throughout his trying experience and documented daily what they were thankful for. He told me that as a butterfly requires strength to break out of its chrysalis and fly, this experience was his chrysalis and made him stronger so he could soar into life. He was grateful to have experienced cancer. So profound, and so counterintuitive— gratitude for his adversity.

Adversity can foster an awareness that’s transformative. Upon completing breast cancer treatment, I felt myself blessed with insights. I was filled with patience and compassion. I felt like an illuminated soul who would be rescued from the trivial concerns of everyday life.  I would no longer be petty. I would not lose patience with my children. I would never yell. I would give advice with elevated wisdom. I basked complacently in the certainty that I was transformed… Until the first time I found myself impatient with a phone solicitor, and then irate with my two children fighting. Shocking as it was, I discovered that transformation doesn’t sustain itself. The insights that I treasured have to be nurtured in an ongoing process of re-creation.

Each day with its setbacks and uncertainty, we create our lives through our response to hardship. Adversity, more than happiness, can help us to discover who we are.  New York Times writer David Brooks writes in his article “What Suffering Does,” “When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.” Reflecting on hardship honors the experience, gives us insights about ourselves, and fosters empathy for others. It doesn’t help us escape our pain, but it does give meaning to our lives.

Psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell offers this metaphor about facing adversity. She says it is not about making lemonade out of lemons. “It’s about becoming the lemon, then tenderly squeezing until you taste the sweetness of a fruit you once imagined was only sour.” So I’m tenderly squeezing the sweetness from my sexagenarian life (which has nothing to do with sex). Look it up. The more I age, the better equipped I feel to deal with life’s challenges.  I can appreciate adversity, embrace my vulnerability, establish a relationship with that unfailing companion mortality, and recognize with gratitude the joy of growing older with the support of loved ones.

Aging is not for wimps. But we’re blessed if the trajectory of our lives takes us that far. If Theodore Roosevelt is right, we must all wear out or rust out, everyone of us. He urges us not to rust out, passively fearing uncertainty or trying to avoid challenges. To wear out is to live life fully despite frailties and courageously embrace experiences at every stage of life. I’m learning to manage the kinks and quirks of my aging body. Despite needing a paint job and frequent tune ups, this old jalopy hits the road each day. It may lack power steering and a navigational system, but it carries me through the unforeseeable twists and turns of my journey.

Mary Petersen is a retired COC English Instructor, 30 year SCV resident, and two-time breast cancer survivor.

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