Adversity, Gratitude, and Possibility

Sweet are the uses of adversity, Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, Wears yet a precious jewel in his head; And this our life, exempt from public haunt, Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.  —William Shakespeare, As You Like It

A s I consider this Thanksgiving Holiday, I’m struck by the curious intersection of gratitude and the ongoing challenges of life. We spend so much effort trying to manage and avoid struggles yet they are integral to our ability to appreciate the gifts in our life. No one wants heartache, yet we know it is coming. No one seeks loss, yet all of us must endure it. Nobody welcomes pain, yet it is the whetstone for much of the joy that appears in our lives. How can something so painfully inevitable also be so vital to our growth and development as human beings? Here are some famous thoughts on adversity:

  • Strength rejoices in the challenge. (Virtus Tentamine Gaudet) The motto of Hillsdale College.
  • That which does not kill us makes us stronger. – Friederick Nietzche
  • Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit. – Napoleon Hill
  • You don’t develop courage by being happy in your relationships everyday. You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity. – Epicurus
  • If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment. – Henry David Thoreau

Now consider gratitude. Our forefathers felt that is was so important that they created a national holiday to celebrate it. Continually highlighted, gratitude remains a cornerstone of our social ethos:

Our capacity, and need, to give thanks goes hand in hand with the various struggles we face during our lifetime. Time often gives us perspective on the struggles that we might better map the benefits of pushing through, surviving, enduring. What is it for which you are thankful? Chances are that it comes directly from or through a challenging experience. It was earned. A few examples:

  • Relationships: strong relationships are forged through shared challenges, external or internal. The inevitable challenges of a long term relationship will either strengthen those bonds or tear them apart.
  • Health: we will all face challenges with our health. If you are feeling grateful for your health today, it is likely that you earned it through enduring a setback or working hard to remain healthy.
  • Education: it is only attained through discipline and time, both of which present challenges.
  • Freedom: to value this you must appreciate how it was earned and how it has been maintained. Otherwise, it is completely abstract.
  • Things: if you are thankful for your possessions, you know what it took to acquire them. There are challenges and sacrifices along the way and your appreciation of what you have is forged in that process.
  • Success: I include this general bucket because it is completely personal to your situation. Defined by you, it is the best example of the intersection between gratitude and struggle. If you are thankful for your level of success, you will keenly know what you had to overcome to attain it.

My list is by no means exhaustive but they illustrate my point. Thanksgiving is about recognizing the struggles, the adversity, that brought you to this point. Now, there is one more element to this story. Possibility. If Thanksgiving is the rear-view mirror to those moments when we pushed through adversity, possibility is the crystal ball for the ones yet to come. Possibility is hope for what might be.

As much as I am thankful for the gifts of my life to this point and in this moment, possibility is what keeps me going. Hope. Hope for my children and all that they might accomplish with their lives. Hope for moments yet to be experienced. Hope for a world that presents more challenges than I can understand and more potential for good than I’ll ever comprehend. The possibility of tomorrow seems endless. This Thanksgiving, I am betting on possibility. That blind faith in a tomorrow that will shape us into what we are to be and take us where we are supposed to go.

You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.  —Thomas Merton

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