Adversity, the Martian of Happiness
Saturday, February 13, 2016
In the recent movie, ‘The Martian,’ starring Matt Damon as the astronaut, Mark Watney, adversity provokes an enormous utilization of the character’s powers—emotional, intellectual, and physical. Left behind for dead by his astronaut crew members, he works every day to improve or remedy his situation, in the midst of overwhelming odds and unexpected disasters. In order to survive he uses every scrap of intelligence, know-how and grit that he has, injecting bits of humor and monologue into his ultimate journey home from the depths of space.
At the end of the movie we see him sitting on a park bench at a university as students pass by jogging. He rises, and looking down, spots a small green plant shooting up between pebbles on inhospitable ground. The determination of this small living plant serves as a visual metaphor for the character’s entire story.
Adversity produces every kind of stress to the human person. I have spent time in conversation, sometimes in tears with clients who have lost their homes, lost their jobs, witnessed in agony the near death of their adult children who overdosed on opiates, been divorced, faced discrimination, survived physical or sexual abuse, faced rejection from their children or siblings or parents, driven vehicles intoxicated which resulted in another passenger’s death, come back from war missing part of an arm but experiencing flashbacks and nightmares, or faced immanent death due to cancer. There is no end to adversity.
And yet, because I am a therapist, the people who come to speak with me represent part of a self-selecting group. They are the transformers, the ones who will not be shut up, who will not give up; who will acknowledge what has happened in their lives but reclaim some parts of their experience for good use.
Adverse circumstances change our lives irrevocably. But after our bodies and minds and hearts have knitted, even just a little bit, we start trying to wrap our minds around what has happened in order to reorient ourselves. We feel shaken in our beliefs, we feel shifts in our perspectives on many things, including our priorities—what’s important, what we want, how much mind-time we spend in the future, the past and the present.
In Jonathan Haidt’s book, ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ he says that research has shown that extremely adverse situations produce three benefits: The first is that, as in ‘The Martian,’ some heretofore “hidden abilities,” are “revealed.” (page 138) And along with that Haidt says that “self-concept” improves because of recognizing these strengths, and, in addition, surviving traumas, including earth quakes, fires, crashes, etc. results in something of an “inoculation against future stress.” (page 139). Haidt quotes Paul’s Letter to the Romans (5:3-4): “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
A second benefit concerns the annealing of relationships. People, who have suffered greatly, often find others around them willing and able to help, and in turn, when we have suffered greatly, we spend less time obsessing over minor slights and misunderstandings. More water can flow under the bridge undisturbed, because small ripples in the larger scheme of things do not seem worth the trouble to mention.
Haidt writes about the studies of people who have ultimately gleaned benefits from the perspective and sense of self and relationship changes in the aftermath of adversity. They are the ones who have directly experienced these adversities. But there is an important sense in which, because we are selves-in-relation (as opposed to entities existing in an interpersonal vacuum), adversities are also experienced by us when our loved ones live through painful life events. I believe we are not so bound by our skin, our cranium, and our daily lives as to be impervious to the suffering of others. We have, through our empathic ability, the capacity to keep another company in their suffering, as well as to help.
In a larger sense, when we embrace the suffering of others as partly our responsibility—both for the harming if we have contributed to that, as well as the bettering—then we can also grow from adversity.
Nietsche’s quote (inexact), “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” is a shorthand version of what happens when we rework our stories by incorporating our suffering in a meaningful way. Our sense of self coheres (as well as our sense of self-among-others) because of the way we understand our story. We have sub-parts within our totality and coherence helps us bind those parts together in a self-community, but coherence also helps attach us to the band of others to whom we belong.
Guest saddle: In what ways have you grown stronger and more resilient from an adverse experience? How have you helped someone else going through a difficult time?