Dealing with Adversity


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Source: This essay was originally published in the book “Think Success, Essays on Self-help” by Jayaram V under the title, “Dealing with adversity," and reproduced with publisher's permission.

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Difficulties and problems are part of our lives. We experience them frequently in various ways. Depending upon how we respond to them or deal with them they may either strengthen us or weaken us. When problems become persistent and troublesome, we may call it an adverse situation.

Adversity is any hardship, difficulty, or suffering, which creates problems and interferes with our ability to live our lives normally or reach our goals. Depending upon the circumstances, an adversity may last for a short time, or long time, and in the process may toughen us, either teaching valuable lessons, or demoralize us, pushing us into depression and withdrawal. Sometimes it leaves lasting and painful memories that are difficult to erase and at other times, it brings out the best in us and propels us towards success and self-growth. If you have a growth mindset, you will learn from your difficulties and move on, but if you have the rigid mindset, you may become stuck in your problems and do not appreciate the opportunity to learn from them.

Adversity is not simply having or not having money or wealth. We cannot say that adversity is the opposite of prosperity. Even rich and prosperous people go through periods of difficulties and face challenges. Adversity is a difficult phase in your life when you repeatedly experience failures, disappointments, and frustration. The following are a few examples of adverse situations that people experience in their lives.

  • Living without a proper job or basic amenities
  • Death of a family member
  • Business failure
  • Loss of reputation
  • Loss of income
  • Prolonged separation from family
  • Prolonged illness
  • Public disapproval and criticism
  • Repeated rejections and failures
  • Excessive debt
  • Divorce and marital conflicts
  • Personal or professional liabilities
  • Unfavorable or hostile circumstances
  • Conflict with law or criminal involvement
  • Living in a foreign country as a refugee
  • Living in fear caused by frequent wars, communal strife, or violence

Some essential facts about adversity

How you respond to adversity depends upon how you perceive it and interpret it according to your values, beliefs, experience and understanding. When adversity strikes, most people initially suffer from negativity, fear, and depression, but quickly recover from it and try to deal with their problems. However, some continue to suffer and feel depressed and helpless. Some people emerge strongly from an adversity, with determination and courage to set things right as they learn from it, while some develop distrust and suspicion, and remain depressed and discouraged. Factors that shape your life and thinking also shape your response to adversity, such as your upbringing, personal beliefs, and past events. Maintaining focus and objectivity in adverse situations is difficult, but it is what you need. For that, you require a proper attitude and a philosophy of life, which can make you accept and absorb failures and setbacks, without losing your morale and faith in the beliefs and values, which you uphold. You need to know what adversity means and what it can do to you both positively and negatively. The following are a few well-known facts about adversity, and its implications.

  • Adversity brings out the best and the worst in us. It may provoke us to do our best or leave us feeling discouraged and frustrated by circumstances.
  • Not all of adversities are the same. Depending upon how severe and critical they are for our happiness and success, they may improve us or destroy us.
  • Adverse situations are caused by many factors. You may broadly classify them into three categories: those arising from your own actions, those caused by others and those caused by acts of God.
  • Adversity may strike anyone at anytime. One may take preventive measures to minimize the chances of its happening, but no one can entirely avoid it by just being right always.
  • Adversity tests our ability to survive and prevail against difficult situations and teaches us valuable lessons, rather harshly and painfully, about life and the world in general, and people and situations in particular. It also opens our eyes to the truths about lives, our existence and ourselves and prepares us mentally to expect future problems.
  • Sometimes, adversities may prevent people from being truthful and honest about themselves or their problems. Since society adores success and dislikes failure, people keep their problems to themselves and live in denial, instead of dealing with them rationally and honestly, and seeking timely help.
  • People differ in their ability to cope with adversity. Some thrive well in adversity seeing opportunities that others do not see, while some suffer from fear and anxiety and become defensive or resentful.
  • Adversity opens our eyes to the truths of the world, the true nature of people, who our true friends and enemies are, and how the world may turn against us when we are in difficulties. It destroys the many illusions and assumptions we may entertain about the world, people and things.

Factors that influence coping behavior

Adversity strikes everyone and none can escape from the suffering that is inherent in our lives. As some traditions believe, perhaps rightly so, adversity is the continuous reality in which one may experience temporary relief as happiness, success and fulfillment. People's attitudes and responses to adversities range from purely emotional to highly rational or spiritual. The same factors, which influence our thinking and adaptability, also shape our attitude and approach to adversities, and our problem solving abilities. Personality factors such as knowledge, awareness, health, self-esteem, genetic factors, values, beliefs, education and experience influence our coping mechanisms. Society and environmental factors also play a role, such as social and economic status, family support, gender, age, and personal reputation. Some communities are particularly harsh towards those who fail in their lives or go through difficulties, while some show sympathy and support to them.

Religions also play an important role in shaping our beliefs, thinking and attitude towards adversity. Almost every religion without exception provides the best emotio-nal and spiritual support to people to deal with not only adversity but also the suffering that arises from it. Every religion attributes human suffering to a personal or divine cause. The scriptures suggest that human beings suffer because either they made mistakes in their lives or God wants to teach them lessons in virtue and improve them. Those who believe in karma think beyond this life and attribute adversity to the actions they committed in their past lives. They either embrace their pain and suffering as part of their self-cleansing or take suitable actions to improve their karma. People who believe in fatalism resign themselves to their fate and wait for the right turn of events. While in a majority of cases, religions provide the best emotional and spiritual support for people in adversity, in some instances they may induce them to indulge in delusion and superstition.

Basic strategies to deal with adversity

Each of is inherently capable of dealing with adversity by either resolving the problem or bearing with it. You cannot solve every problem you face, but when you face a problem that defies all solutions you must have the courage, conviction, faith, and ability to take it in your stride and move on with your life. While problems try to hold you back, you must try to move forward either by changing your ways or the circumstances. Nature has endowed us with the will and the ability to survive and win against odds. In this vast universe, we are undoubtedly unique beings.

In our struggle for survival, we have learned to cope with challenging situations and transcend our own limitations to establish a great civilization. We have resolved many problems in the past, through inventions and innovations, and vastly improved our knowledge and ability to deal with the problems caused by Nature, circumstances or our own actions. We know how to establish order and stability in an otherwise chaotic world and work for the greater good of all. Although we are prone to make mistakes and wrong choices, we can still evaluate situations and deal with our problems, rationally, realistically and effectively.

Broadly speaking our strategies to deal with adverse situations and problems fall into fight or flight responses. Depending upon how we perceive the problem and evaluate the consequences we either deal with it actively or avoid it willfully. This is true with regard to not only individuals but also nations and communities. These two approaches are discussed below.

1. Active engagement

In active engagement you do not back out of a problem. You will face it and deal with it with appropriate solutions and strategies. You will use your intelligence and resources to identify the problems and try to solve them. For example, if you have suffered a business loss or failure in securing a promotion, you will analyze the reasons, ask others for their opinions, search for rational and effective solutions and deal with the problem. You will keep trying until you find a resolution. It is possible that our solutions will not always be effective. Our ignorance and irrational beliefs may interfere with our ability to find right solutions. However, as long as we keep trying and dealing with the problem, even if our methods are wrong, we are deemed to be fighting the issue and not avoiding it.

2. Willful avoidance

It is common sense that when problems arise they must be resolved in time. In real life, it does not always happen. People may willfully avoid dealing with adversities, if they are too difficult to resolve, the resources to deal with them are inadequate or unavailable, the circumstances surrounding them are unfavorable, or fear and other emotional factors are too strong to overcome. They may also intentionally do it because of anger, frustration, erroneous beliefs, status issues, social pressure, or ignorance. When they fall into such mental or emotional traps, it is very difficult to motivate them to take suitable action. Since time is also healer and a teacher, sometimes one may use avoidance as a good strategy to sleep on a problem or wait for the right time. However, one cannot let that happen always. If problems are not resolved in time, they may cause additional problems or make them even more difficult to solve.

How to deal with any adversity

There is no one better way to deal with an adversity. Even if you find one, you cannot be sure that it is the best. If it works, you are lucky and move on. If it is not, you have to find another, and keep doing it, until you find one. Since each situation is unique and the causes and circumstances related to it are different, and since people respond differe-ntly in different situations according to their beliefs, limitations, and emotions, every adversity requires specific solutions. In the following discussion, we will focus on a general approach or a step by step program to deal with any adversity. You may customize them according to your needs and circumstances.

1. Study the situation carefully

Becoming familiar with the problem is the first step. Once you know and define the problem, it is easier to find solutions. The best place to begin the process is your own mind. You have to pay attention to your feelings and memories associated with the problem and analyze how it all began, and how your own thoughts and actions precipitated it or responded to it. Then, you may think of the comments you heard from others and what they felt about it. Most of the time, a problem will be so striking that you may not have to do a lot of analysis to understand it. You know internally what troubles you or hampers your abilities and happiness. However, it may still be necessary to do the study and introspection to unearth hidden causes and problems, especially to ensure that you are not in denial of the problem or making light of it because of your own defensive attitude. For example if you have a chronic health problem, you need to know whether it is curable or bearable and what options you have to deal with it within your capacity.

2. Accept the reality

If you are not honest with yourself, your solutions will not be effective. Many times problems remain unresolved and difficulties continue because people are not willing to be honest with them and acknowledge their role and responsibility in causing the problem or solving it. You cannot avoid problems by disowning them or blaming others. When you are in difficulties, you have to accept that it is your life and your problem, and you are the one who need to deal with it. You cannot let yourself become a victim of denial or your own sense of self-importance. Adversities are great levelers. They can bring down even kings to their knees. In testing conditions you have to bring out your gut instincts into play to defend your turf and protect your interests, knowing well that problems have a tendency to aggravate if they are neglected and when you have problems you cannot trust or depend upon anyone blindly, because when you are weak your enemies strike you with all their might.

For example if you have lost your job, you have to accept responsibility to find a new job and prepare for it. You have to acknowledge that after you left the previous job your old colleagues may have a different perception of you, and may not always be forthright with you or readily help you to network. You may also have to prepare mentally to answer any questions that may be asked by the recruiters about your previous employment, and decide what answers you need to give and how it may interfere with your prospects or opportunities. If your employer is one of those mean spirited and vindictive people or companies, they may speak negatively about you to the recruiters and prevent you from getting a job in the same town. This happens many times if you live in small places where news spreads quickly. If it is the case, you may have to consider the option of relocating to a new place. Thus, in difficulties you have to keep your feet firmly on the ground and deal with the problems as realistically and honestly as possible, keeping all your options open and your emotions under control. When we are in difficulties, we have to be doubly honest with ourselves and clear any illusions we may have about our abilities, self-worth or influence. In difficulties, you should accept reality as your best teacher and humility as your great virtue. You can believe in God, but it is wise not to expect miracle to happen.

3. Accept responsibility

You are the driver of your life. You may seek others' help to resolve your problems, but primarily they are your responsibility. Others may help you, but the initiative to resolve them must come from you. You should also accept responsibility for what happened, instead of blaming others or the circumstances, especially when it was caused not by acts of God, but by negligence or human errors. Blaming others does not help you much, except letting you feel light by venting your emotions. By accepting responsibility for your problems and analyzing their true causes, you can think of the measures you can take to control or prevent them from happening again. When you seek others' help, you have to ensure that you will not undermine their effort and involvement with self-destructive attitude. For example, some people cannot digest the fact that they have to depend upon others for help. Therefore, to prevent them from doing it, they push them away with aggressive or destructive behavior.

4. Take timely action

What sustains a person in difficult situations is the belief that he can do something about it and eventually emerge out of it. When he loses that faith, he becomes heartbroken and may even lose the zest for living. Many people give up trying or even commit suicide when they lose that hope. People say that at the end of a dark long tunnel there will always be light. That light is the hope. When that light vanishes, only darkness remains. When miners become stuck several hundred or a thousand feet below the earth in dark mines, with no easy passage to come out, what keeps them alive until they are rescued? It is not only faith and hope but also the actions they take to survive until the rescue comes. When adversity strikes, you should not only cultivate the right mindset to bear with it, but also find solutions to eventually emerge out of it with minimum damage. By far, this is the best and realistic approach.

Sometimes you need a lot of mental courage and inner preparation to cope with the challenges in your life, but it is worth trying since the alternative of not doing anything may lead to very negative consequences. Most problems in our lives can be resolved by finding effective solutions, and implementing them with determination and perseverance. In rare cases when you are unable to find solutions, you must look for alternatives, consult others, or learn to bear with them. For example, there are no remedies to certain types of degenerative diseases such as diabetes or heart disease. In such cases, you have to make lifestyle choices to minimize pain and further damage, and adapt yourself suitably to the new reality. Since in this case you are making an effort to deal with the problem and not avoiding it, it cannot be considered willful avoidance.

5. Take preventive measure

We can learn a great deal from adversity and use the knowledge to minimize our chances of facing similar situations in future. It may not completely secure us against unforeseen problems, but it is certainly helpful to minimize our chances of facing recurring problems. We can learn a lot from adversity and improve ourselves. If we have the right attitude, we can use failures and setbacks to deal with our imperfections and increase our knowledge, skills and expertise. It is not that we should want them to happen, but when they happen, we must be willing to take them in our stride and learn from them. Indeed, someone rightly said that if we do not learn from our difficulties, we would be forced to deal repeatedly with the same situations, until we learn our lessons. None can achieve success in life without leaning from their mistakes. If you want to progress, you should make an honest assessment of your weaknesses and vulnerabilities and see what you can do about them. By knowing what happened and what factors led to a difficulty, you can take preventive measures to safeguard your life and interests against possible threats. For example if you have star-ted a business and faced serious losses, because you misjudged the market or introduced a wrong product, you can use that knowledge to avoid repeating those mistakes, and improve your chances of success.

6. Stay positive

How we reference or view an adverse situation and how we respond to it are more important than how we eventually resolve it. Adverse situations produce negative emotions, which are difficult to control or manage. When adversity strikes, many of our assumptions and expectations about people and life in general take a big hit, and as the world around us collapses, we open our eyes to a new reality, which we have not seen before. Such experiences may make us cynical and distrustful of human nature. We may begin to resent people and society in general and may even develop distaste for life itself. While we cannot completely avoid the emotional upheavals caused by adversity, we can cope with them in better ways by staying positive and keeping our expectations on the brighter side.

7. Cultivate detachment

In extreme cases, where nothing can be done or nothing seems to work, detachment may be the right solution to cope with difficult problems or learn to live with them with a sense of resignation. Unless you are spiritually inclined to live the life of a saint or a monk, you should not use this except as the last resort or the ultimate solution. For the right-minded person, detachment is a virtue. Its practice offers many advantages. It is useful even in worldly life to remain untouched by the disturbances in life or failures and setbacks. Detachment means to accept life as it happens and to treat all conditions equally without preference or choice. Extreme practice of detachment may disengage you from life altogether. Therefore, you have to know how you can use it in your life without losing your balance, and without inner conflicts.

8. Cultivate the right mindset

Certain qualities are helpful to remain focused in difficulties and face your problems with courage and confidence. In this regard, the following factors are found useful.

  • Ability to see positive outcomes
  • Flexibility and adaptability
  • Emotional resilience
  • Staying in the present
  • Knowledge and expertise
  • Willingness to learn
  • Rational problem solving skills
  • Focus and attention to details
  • Self-motivation
  • Positive self-esteem

Ultimately, the only person you can control and transform in this world with greater ease and certainty is you. You can control and manage your thoughts, actions, responses, ideas, plans, attitude and approaches. It is where you should focus, when you have problems in life and when you are unable to make expected progress. See where you are going wrong, what mistakes you might have made and how you may overcome them. Honest self-evaluation is the best policy and approach in adverse situations. If you right yourself, many things about your life and destiny cannot go wrong. With self-control and discipline, you can mend your life and establish a firm foundation for your success and happiness. Adversity toughens and teaches you valuable lessons. It lets you know your vulnerabilities so that you can address them and make yourself stronger. Therefore, take each adversity as an opportunity to become a better and more capable human being.

Bhagavadgita Translation and Commentary by Jayaram V Avaialbe in USA/UK/DE/FR/ES/IT/NL/PL/SC/JP/CA/AU

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