I won’t blame you if the title of this article turns you into a doomsday prepper and sends you scampering off to the office supplies store to stock up on bubble wrap. That’s not my intent. At least don’t bother with the bubble-wrap. The truth is, adversity isn’t just something that happens to others. It could happen to you. The question is, how do you develop the resilience to handle adversity when it eventually comes?
By trying, we can easily endure adversity. Another man’s, I mean. Mark Twain.
It could happen to you
I recently watched a very inspirational and touching TedX clip. The speaker in the video is New Zealander Lucy Hone, who, about fifteen years ago, was at the University of Pennsylvania studying the science and behavioral applications of resilience. Soon after, when Hone moved back to her native Christchurch, the devastating 2011 earthquakes hit the country.
Hone, sensing this was her calling, put her research on resilience to use, working with various agencies to help her local community cope with the aftermath of the natural disaster. But even she wasn’t prepared for the personal calamity what was about to unfold in her own life, when the phrase “it could happen to you” took on a whole new meaning.
In 2014, Hone’s 12-year-old daughter was killed in a road accident, an incident that sent Hone tumbling into the depths of grief. Almost instantly, Hone went from being the “resilience expert” to the other end of the spectrum—the grieving parent. In the TedX clip (worth watching) Hone recounts some of the key strategies on strength and resilience that she believes helped her handle the ensuing grief.
Lucy Hone’s experience reiterates what we all intuitively know, but are often in denial about: adversity does not discriminate. The mustard-seed story is a great reminder.
In a Buddhist parable, Kisa Gotami, a young woman born to a poor family, is married off to the only son of a wealthy man. Ridiculed by her in-laws for her humble origins, Gotami’s life however changes for the better as soon as she bears a son. But instead of a happily ever-after existence, Gotami is soon hurled into despair when her young boy is afflicted by disease and dies suddenly.
A distraught Gotami carries her child’s body around her village looking for someone to revive her son. She’s turned away by everyone until she encounters the Buddha, who offers her a ray of hope. The Buddha agrees to resuscitate her son, but under one condition: Gotami had to bring the Buddha a mustard seed from a villager’s home that hadn’t witnessed death.
Soon Gotami realizes the futility of her task and eventually comes to terms with the reality of the situation: adversity is universal.
Not “if,” but “when”
Unpleasant and unexpected events come in many shapes and forms—freak accidents, cancer diagnoses, natural disasters, financial blows, etc. But often, and especially in the current world of make-believe picture-perfectness on social media, it’s easy for us to put on rose-tinted glasses and assume we are immune from health emergencies, job losses, or other such catastrophes.
As Morgan Housel, author of the bestseller Psychology of Money, says
Recession is when a neighbor loses their job. Depression is when you lose yours.
The sooner we come to terms with the reality that it’s not a question of if it could happen to you, but rather when, the better prepared we can be to handle the aftermath of negative events. And the first step in that direction is to let go of the notion that we get to control the types of adversity we might encounter in our lives. But that, in itself, is a tough bridge to cross thanks to our cognitive biases.
The biases in behavioral economics are classic examples of the fallacies in our thinking. We are quick to point out how someone should have or could have acted in a situation, when the reality is, without the benefit of hindsight bias, we probably would have acted the same way.
How often have we read a news article or seen a story about financial scams and assume such things only happen to “other, more gullible people,” while being oblivious to someone metaphorically pulling the rug from under our own feet probably at that very moment?
To quote the world’s foremost expert on cognitive biases, Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman
We can be blind to the obvious, but we are also blind to our blindness.
So, knowing we’re susceptible to cognitive biases, how do we still function without losing our mind in the face of adversity?
It is tempting to wrap ourselves in a bubble, hoping and praying that we’re protected from the risk of adverse events. But as the universe keeps showing us, over and over again, we can’t possibly think and plan for every contingency that could befall as. As Carl Richards so eloquently said,
Risk is what’s left when you think you’ve thought of everything.
The way forward
So, the only realistic choice we have is to strengthen our resilience skills, such that adversity, when it eventually comes our way, doesn’t catch us completely off guard. At the same time, we need to get out and live life in all it’s glory when we can, because, it would indeed be a sad existence to stay cooped in our caves all day and miss the beautiful sunsets and rainbows forever because we fear the saber-toothed tiger might be on the prowl (to borrow Lucy Hone’s analogy).
In other words, “Yes, it could happen to you. But you have a choice in how you respond.”
Here are some time-tested tools to stay on our feet in the midst of life’s storms.
Judgment is easy. Empathy is hard. Before shaking your head, or pointing fingers, or tsk-tsking away, it pays to remember that it could happen to you.
Even worse than judgment, however, is schadenfreude—the German word used to describe malicious joy, or joy, in the suffering of others. It’s a word that describes something so essentially human that no one felt the need to come up with an English-language equivalent.
But the next time you pick up a magazine at the grocery store checkout line and feel a wee bit of schadenfreude at the celebrity’s cellulite shots, or smile quietly when your envy turns into laughter at your rude colleague’s canceled vacation flight, remind yourself that life is not always fair. It could happen to you.
As the saying goes, “It’s easy to complain about your shoes until you see someone with no feet.” All it takes is a level of self-awareness to find something positive, even in the most difficult circumstances. It may be tempting to live an unremarkable life because, after all, everything can vanish in a second, but that’s precisely the reason to be grateful for what we have.
Do what you can
While it’s true that people with no history of smoking can get lung cancer, the reverse is even truer—the likelihood of ending up with lung cancer is very high if they did smoke.
Resilience isn’t just about tackling adversity, it’s also about doing what you can to actively avoid inviting adversity into your life.
Wisdom starts with knowing and acknowledging this one fact: It could happen to you.
So, instead of “why, me?” the more relevant question is “why not me?”
That said, despite understanding that adversity doesn’t discriminate, no one in their right mind, will, or is expected to welcome adverse circumstances into their lives. What we can do, though, is build enough resilience to still be standing on our feet after a storm of hardships.
Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance. Daniel Kahneman.