Saturday, March 27, 2010

Facing Adversity

All of us must face adversity. All of us will be challenged. We will all go through difficult times, and each one of us will respond. The question is not when, but how? How will you respond to adversity when it is thrust in your face? What will you do? Will you face it with great courage? Will you call up your inner resources? Who, outside yourself, will you look to for guidance and inspiration? I gain a little courage each time I think about three shinning examples and what they have to say about standing up to hardship. Though each one faced a different challenge, each approached their unique circumstances with conviction and fortitude. Each one rose above their ordeal, and earned the right, at least in my mind, to serve as role models for the rest of us, because each responded powerfully to trials that most of us can hardly imagine.

One such women was born in 1880 and earned her B.A. degree from Radcliffe. How many women back then did that? She went on to publish 12 books and lectured all over the world. Through her travels she met every US President from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson and was friends with the likes of Alexander Graham Bell, Charlie Chaplin, and Mark Twain. When someone in Japan introduced her to the Akita, a Japanese dog known for its loyalty and courage, she introduced the breed to the United States.

She also fought as a political activist for women's rights, pacifism, and birth control. She was an outspoken advocate for people with disabilities. She lived with power and conviction and inspired people to action. She lived a remarkable life. What makes her even more remarkable was that she could not see, nor hear. Both blind and deaf, Helen Keller rose above her circumstances, ones thrust upon her before she was two years old, to make a significant mark on the world.
How did she do it? How did she live through hardship that life tossed her with an elegance and strength that I can barely imagine. Helen Keller explained her approach simply.

"Look the world straight in the face."

How's that feel? Have a stare down with adversity. Don't blink. Don't back down. Face it like a champion. Helen Keller sure did. What a fighting spirit she had. I mean, how can you not respect a women who could not see, nor hear but who managed to not just survive, which would have been admirable enough given her circumstances, but who, despite the weight of her adversity, made a remarkable contribution to the world. Helen Keller stands as a shining beacon for all who are lost in pity, or overwhelmed with life’s mayhem.

Another one I have always admired, who when faced with unimaginable hardship, did not back down. In time, Victor Frankl marveled us all with his attitude, perseverance and sheer accomplishment. At 37 he was shoved into a Nazi concentration camp where he watched and felt, first-hand, the unspeakable brutally doled out there. Somehow through this horror Victor managed to not only survive but to grow stronger. How did he do it despite watching his wife taken from him and later murdered? How did he do it despite seeing his parents ripped from their home and slain by the same regime that was abusing him? How did he survive so elegantly despite living in such sordid conditions, where rats ate more than the prisoners, where he lived in naked humiliation, where each day he or dozens of his cellmates could be gassed?

Victor said he learned through watching his fellow prisoners suffer. Some, he noticed, suffered better than others. He discovered that those who found meaning in suffering suffered better. He himself found meaning by imagining that he would one day be freed and that he would speak to large audiences about what he had learned from the horrid conditions. That vision, he said, helped to keep him alive.
He also tended to his inner spiritual beliefs and held firmly to them, because they offered him strength and the knowledge that they were the one thing the Nazi's could not destroy.

Maybe most importantly, Victor had a revelation on a long, hard march through the dark night into the icy wind, where he stumbled over rocks and trudged through large puddles with the butt of a rifle pounding his back, always keeping him moving despite the bitter pain of aching, cold feet and sheer hunger and exhaustion. He remembered his beloved wife, Tilly.

When he did, he said, "A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth -- that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire... I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, ... when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment."

That revelation sustained him through three years of otherwise unbearable torments until the American‘s liberated him. Once liberated, Victor Frankl returned to Vienna and founded Logotherapy and wrote his world-famous book, Man's Search for Meaning. Shaped by his experiences in the concentration camps, he described what he saw and learned there. He taught the world how to not only face horror but to live productively and meaningfully after enduring it. Victor lived more than 50 years after he was freed and wrote 32 books, lectured and taught all over the world and earned 29 honorary doctorial degrees. Thank goodness for Victor Frankl.

Where Victor Frankl was thrown into adversity, this next women volunteered for it. Mother Teresa volunteered and dedicated nearly her entire adult life to living among and serving the world's poor. She started her journey in Calcutta's slums, where she begged for food and supplies just to survive. She felt tremendous loneliness and experienced grave doubts then about what she had done, but she did not give up. She once wrote, "Of free choice, my God, and out of love for you, I desire to remain and do whatever be your Holy will in my regard."

Later, in 1950 she began a small order that ministered to the sick, crippled, naked, blind, homeless, unwanted and shunned members of society. Today more than 4000 nuns run similar charity center world-wide. In 1952 Mother Teresa opened her first home for the dying and helped people who had lived like animals to die with dignity and love. Soon after she opened a home for lepers (Hansen's Disease), which she is probably best known, and in 1955 she opened a home for orphans. The order eventually attracted recruits and funds and by the 1960's had opened houses all over India, and later throughout the globe.

How did she do this without falling apart? Mother Teresa believed she was doing God's will, that she was pursuing her highest calling and despite the hardship, she felt compelled to serve. She once said, "We, the unwilling, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much, for so long, with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing."

She followed her heart and grew strong and capable by heeding it’s calling. Despite the hardship and the squalor she lived in, she fought lovingly for those who did not know how or feel deserving of doing so for themselves. She became strong by giving her life to the weak. What a remarkable example of what we can accomplish with an ironclad will and a heart open and tender enough to lead us to our calling, no matter how difficult or painful.

I am amazed by what we can, with resolve and vision, endure. There’s no way around it. We are all going to be challenged in life, and we will all respond. The question is how. If we are willing, if our resolve is strong, we can respond with strength, meaning, spiritual fortitude and with love. This is our highest calling and largest challenge. Fortunately, those who have gone before us have not only shown us that we can succeed, but also how.

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