Monday, April 6, 2009

Shaped by Adversity?

Some people face mountains in their lives and climb them, but that hasn’t been me. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I was born into a loving family, and I’ve known love all my life. My trials have been small and mostly self-inflicted, so what I’ve learned from adversity is largely second hand: to be grateful for all I have and also grateful for all I’ve been spared. It could so easily have been otherwise.

We see adversity strike from the blue: anyone--the strong, the weak, the innocent, the guilty can suffer. Some are ground down, but others are also raised up, learning courage and perseverance, hardiness, helpfulness, charity and love. Of course, these latter results show adversity’s happy face; the darker side is degradation and despair.

Lately, I’ve been reading In the Shadow of Progress by Eric Cohen (New Atlantis Books, 2008) in which Cohen discusses the intersection of biological science and ethics. One point made is that our ultimate human adversity is death. None of us will escape death. But that in itself may be a good thing. Cohen cites Hans Jonas, a German-born philosopher who taught at the New School for Social Research in New York from 1955-1976: “Jonas quotes the Psalmist asking God: ‘So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.’”

Wisdom knows what is worthwhile in life, what is essential to our dignity, what lifts us up. This is what adversity can teach by necessity because it jolts us from our daily apathy; we must confront our frailty and ignorance. We must see what to value in our transient, mortal selves. We must learn how to live.

Adversity is a fit topic for the Christian Holy Week. Jesus’ pain and suffering on the cross is a cup none of us would willingly sip. Yet Christians believe Christ’s death brings us redemption and eternal life. In my church on Psalm Sunday, we sang, “Ride on! ride on in majesty!/ In lowly pomp ride on to die;/ Bow thy meek head to mortal pain,/ Then take, O God, thy power, and reign.” Thus is the ultimate adversity conquered.

But “science” disagrees and seeks eternal life medically, at least as a backup. Wisdom is needed to guide us to embrace the search for knowledge while carefully evaluating its claims against the truth of human exceptionalism. Cohen’s book takes up the questions that medical technology presents for our human future: wonderful advances against disease and moral questions over means. The book is more exposition than answers, but Cohen does have a conclusion, and it’s worth the effort of reading through his very good discussion to reach.

The above is a submission for Robert Hruzek's "What I learned from adversity" group writing project at Be sure to take a visit there and read all the entries and make a submission yourself!

1 comment:

  1. Yup; I'd say, "gettin' jolted from my daily apathy" is a good definition of adversity. Who knows what lessons it's preparing to teach us, eh?

    Thanks for the entry, and a tip o' the hat to ya!