Stuff Happens – How to Handle Adversity
I was talking to a friend who recently completed a half marathon. He told me about how he had been training for several months to get ready. On the appointed day, he woke up at 4 AM, drove to a nearby city, loaded buses. The many buses took him (and the 2000 some odd other runners) to the starting point in a nearby canyon. They all unloaded there. He said it was a bit disconcerting knowing that there was only one way back (on his own feet). He described his feelings of anticipation and the excitement around the event.
The race was challenging, but there were many positive elements. He got to know people as he ran. Many his immediate family and extended family were also running. Also, this was not just any half marathon, it was specifically to support cancer patients. His family was running to honor his sister, who had recently died. The way he described the event, I could tell that even though it was a challenge, he considered it an inspiring experience and he was glad he did it.
Now imagine a similar scenario, but with a few differences. Imagine that on a random morning without warning, you are awakened at gunpoint at 4 AM, loaded onto a bus, driven 13 miles away from your home and told you must run home. You are given no reasons, and you are not prepared. In fact, perhaps you are overweight with high blood pressure and bad knees. The run home is excruciating. You feel pain with every step and your lungs feel like they will burst. All you can think about is what torture this is. If the physical pain is not enough, you struggle even more mentally. All you can think is Why? Why are you are being forced to do this? What is the purpose? What evil person is to blame? You hate every second of it while it’s happening, and even when the event is over, you can’t leave it alone as you stew with anger, resentment, and your need to find someone to blame.
If I were to interview you about your experience, what would you say? Would you consider it an inspiring experience like my friend? Not likely. But why? Both situations involved the same basic details of an early morning departure and a 13 mile run. Both situations involved what you might call “adversity.” Yet, there was a significant difference in how this adversity was experienced and perceived.
Adversity “just is”
Adversity in life “just is.” Over the years, we’ve come up with various ways to explain it. A scientist may blame it on the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics—disorder is always increasing. Statisticians would call it “chance” or randomness. The military invented Murphy’s Law to describe it—whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. Pop culture put it on a bumper sticker, “Stuff happens” (occasionally a different “s” word is used). However you choose to look at it, adversity is just a part of life. Some of it comes as an “act of God,” some at the hands of others, and some is self-inflicted (like long distance running). Here are a few that come to mind:
- Job loss
- Marital problems
- Illness (acute, chronic, terminal)
- Death of a loved one
- Professional failure
- Family contention
- Career setback
- Financial stress
Do you know anyone who hasn’t experienced adversity? Neither do I. So, we’ve all experienced it, however, the way you experience the same set of conditions can vary dramatically.
What makes the difference?
Let’s consider the half marathon again. The half marathon is like adversity–13 miles at 5AM, ready, set, go! In one case it was an uplifting experience, and in another it was utter torture. Why?
If you look carefully, there are three things that made the difference: preparation, expectations, and meaning.
First, my friend had prepared for it. With practice, he built up his strength and endurance. Second, he signed up for the race, he knew the date and starting time, and he anticipated what it would be like on race day. He knew it was coming. When race day came, he was ready. Third, he had a reason. There was a cause. He was running for cancer. He was running for his sister.
If you want to learn how to handle adversity, each of these plays a unique and important role.
1. Prepare Yourself
If you know you are going to run a long distance, it’s no secret that preparation makes a huge difference.
But, you say, that’s fine for marathons, but you don’t know what life is going to throw at you. How can you prepare for life? True you don’t know, but really you have a pretty good idea.
Think of it this way. In medicine, we don’t know what we are going to see in the hospital each day. However, we certain see patterns of disease over and over again, so it’s not a mystery. “We know who you are, we just don’t know your name.” We’ve seen your pattern of illness before, and you’re next in line. You’re the “chest pain” in bed 2 or the “level 3 trauma” in bed 7. It would be silly if doctors were surprised with a 80 year-old with a hip fracture and had to make up a new approach to treat it each time it happened.
It’s the same with life and adversity. We can predict what and prepare for (and sometimes even prevent) the most common situations.
Prepare your finances
Financial adversity can be crushing.
- Job loss
Put things in place that will soften the blow when these things occur.
First, get your financial house in order. Learn to live within your means. Know your income and expenses. Pay off debt. Save at least 20% of your income for your future. Establish a 3-6 month emergency fund. Invest in low cost index mutual funds.
Second, get insurance. Insurance prepares you for “randomness” and “act of God” types of adversity. Buy insurance (health, disability, life, home, auto, umbrella, malpractice, etc.). You don’t want to take chances here. You don’t think it will be you–until it is. No excuses. Just do it.
Here’s some reading to get you motivated:
- Understanding Your Relationship With Money
- Money Can’t Buy Me Love (But It Can Buy Me Time)
- Finding the Right Work Life Balance
- How to Get Financially Fit
When you’re ready, here’s a mini-course to jumpstart your finances in 20 days.
Prepare your health
Health is something you don’t appreciate until you’ve lost it.
- Illness (acute, chronic, terminal)
- Traumatic injury
Insure against health issues by exercising and eating well. Just like running a long distance is easier when your body is in shape, so is preventing and overcoming illness. Keeping your body in top condition will help you overcome what life throws at you. While this may be easier said than done, it is doable when you know the secrets of forming good habits.
Sometimes I hear people say, “Everyone is going to die of something.” This is usually said in response to not wanting to make healthy choices about what to eat and how to exercise. Sure this is true, life is a terminal illness. But it is a bogus excuse for not taking care of yourself. It’s like saying, “Every car is eventually going to the junkyard.” That would be a lame excuse for purposefully pouring sand into the gas tank or leaving the all the windows open in a rain storm. A well-cared for car can last 150K miles longer than one that is abused. Why abuse your body?
Examine your physical fitness. Are you where you want to be? Are you headed toward, or already in the midst of, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and chronic joint pain? A small investment daily pays huge dividends in the long run. In too many cases, our health adversity is self-imposed. Don’t do this to yourself. Even if/when illness or accident strikes, if your body is fit, you’ll be in the best position to fight it and recover.
- Your Body Is a Machine, Use It or Lose It
- A Silver Bullet for Getting Fit
- High Intensity Interval Training: A Bonafide Fountain of Youth
Prepare you skills
Sometimes our adversity is job related.
- Job loss
- Career setback
- Business failure
The world is changing rapidly and your career today may not be your career tomorrow. Advancing technology and increasing global economics has set the stage for a dynamic and shifting job market. It’s been termed “creative destruction” and it affects how you should think about your future livelihood.
In the movie, Hidden Figures, there was a great example of how to handle creative destruction. NASA had a whole room full of computers. But these were not the computers you are thinking of. These were people (African American women to be specific). They were called “computers” because they were experts in math. They computed things. Then a big IBM “computer” is installed and the future of these women seems uncertain since the new computer can do far more calculations/second than the people. One of these amazing woman realizes that there will be a whole new set of jobs programming the IBM computers, so she sets out to learn Fortran (a computer programming language). This leads to a new and better job.
Be like her. Be a problem solver. Look for places to add value to your customer and/or employer. Move up the value chain. People who see opportunities around them to fix and solve things are always in demand.
Consider the many ways to continue your education even after formal education is done. Use your local library. Look for free online courses or independent study college courses. Subscribe to newsletters and podcasts. This is truly the Information Age.
Prepare your relationships
Some of the most difficult adversity comes with poorly managed relationships.
- Marital problems
- Family contention
How do you prepare your relationships for adversity? In many ways it can be compared to a bank account. You must invest or you will become overdrawn. I understand this theoretically, but I’m no expert in practice (is anyone?). Here’s what I try to do to prepare for future relationship challenges:
(1) Establish (and defend) a date night: Mrs. FirstHabit and I plan to go out every Friday night. It’s not much more than maybe a meal and some adult conversation, but it is something we plan on. Sometimes other things come up and we have to “defend” our appointment together from the onslaught of other demands. I think the date night helps. This is where we have time to discuss some of the long-term issues: new ideas, parenting challenges, home projects, and work and life challenges.
(2) Eat meals together as a family: We sit down for breakfast and dinner as a family together nearly every day. We talk about the day’s events. We often ask what the “best” and “worst” of the day was for each person. Sometimes we play “dinner games” that are like riddles or word challenges. I try to explain something about the world events or some kind of life lesson. We look forward to bonding together at meals.
(3) Conduct father interviews: About once a month on Sundays, I try to sit down with each of our kids and talk about how they are doing and find out about any challenges. It’s a chance to review goals. It’s a chance to ask how I’m doing as a parent. It’s a chance to talk about touchy subjects like bullying, pornography, or substance abuse. This is not always a formal sit down in my home office; sometimes we take a walk around the neighborhood.
(4) Play together. This is one I want to get better at. You’d think it would be easy since play is fun. But with all the cares and duties in life, I tend to forget or skip the play time. Kids need play (and so do adults). How does the saying go, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy?” Also, I think there is some truth to the saying that the family that plays together stays together.
(5) Catch them doing good. As a radiologist, I am good at spotting the abnormality on an x-ray or CT scan. While this singular skill is well-compensated in my workplace, it is not as appreciated within the family dynamic. It’s been said that your praise to criticism ratio should be somewhere around 6 to 1. I am nowhere near this, but I keep reminding myself. Complements and positive reinforcement create a positive emotional bank account. Then when you make an occasional “withdrawal,” it’s no big deal. You’re on solid footing.
(6) Show gratitude. This is another one I am trying to improve. Saying “thank you” goes a long way to easing relationship strife. No one likes to be taken for granted, and when you show appreciation, you are acknowledging and validating the things that others do for you.
2. Expect Challenges
Running 13 miles is a positive challenge when you are expecting it (so they say), and it could be torture if it’s unexpected. So it can be with life’s adversity. Your expectations are a huge part of how you experience life.
Change your mental model
Speaking for myself, I have a hard time expecting challenges. In my “default mode,” I tend to think that life will go “as planned.” I expect that my family members and I will stay healthy. I expect that my kids will get good grades, go to college, get good jobs, and start families of their own. I expect my relationship with my wife will stay strong. I expect that my job will always be secure. I expect the patients I treat to have good outcomes. I expect my retirement portfolio to keep rising. I expect people to treat me well at work. I expect my leaders to make wise decisions. I expect society to be civil. I expect law enforcement to protect citizens. And on and on.
Maybe some of you are thinking that this sounds like “Pollyanna” thinking, or that it is naive. Of course it is. But isn’t it how a lot of us go about our day? We wake up and assume that life today will go “as planned.”
Why is that? Maybe it’s because it mostly does for most people. My generation (X) has not seen many of the challenges that other generations or other societies have experienced (world wars, economic depression, high infant mortality, epidemic illness, extreme poverty).
Maybe it’s because western society places a lot of emphasis on self-determination and justice. “I’m in charge” and “I have a right to this.”
The danger is that this is in many ways false roadmap of reality. My expectations that ‘things will go as planned’ creates an illusion of control in a world that is constantly changing and unfolding independently of how I think it should. Then, when things inevitably don’t go as planned, I’m frustrated, disappointed, and maybe even angry. Pain is coming my way. I should expect it. When adversity strikes, instead of thinking “why me?” I should think, “why not me?”
I will get ill. I will fail. I will be rejected, I will have relationship issues. When these things come along I can say, “Yes, I knew that something like this was probably coming. Now it’s my turn.”
Distinguish between pain and suffering
Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Physical pain has biological underpinnings and is an alerting mechanism to the brain that “something is wrong.” Suffering is our emotional response to pain. Suffering is triggered when we say things like “Why me?” and “This isn’t fair.”
There are some amazing examples of people who have been through great pain, but who refuse to suffer.
One of my favorites is Beck Weathers. He was one of eight clients being guided on Mount Everest in May 1996 when a blizzard struck and he was stranded alone for 2 days exposed on the mountain in sub-zero temperatures. Two different times, he was left for dead by others. Yet, miraculously, he survived. Following his evacuation, he lost his right arm, all five fingers of his left hand, his nose, and parts of both feet to frostbite.
Yet, he refuses to suffer. In his own words:
I just have accepted my reality and I think [when you] realize you can’t go through the ‘why me, could’ve, should’ve, would’ve,’ all the rest of that kind of second guessing doesn’t do anything except make you unhappy and bitter.
The remarkable thing about the last 20 years is that those have been the best years of my life. I gave up some body parts, but I got back my marriage, I got back my relationship with my kids, I’ve got a new grandbaby…all in all, if I had to do it again, every pain, every misery, every bit of suffering that comes from it, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
3. Find Meaning
My friend’s experience running the half marathon explains how the meaning behind what we do matters. He was running for cancer. He was running for his sister. Finding meaning in the challenges we face is an important way to handle adversity.
Some of you might recall the story of the three bricklayers, all working at the same task. Each one of them was asked what they were doing.
The first man said, “I’m laying bricks.”
The second man said, “I’m putting up a wall.”
The third man said enthusiastically and with pride, “I’m building a cathedral.”
Your whole experience changes depending on your perspective. The most powerful example of this explained in the book by Dr. Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, where Dr. Frankl shares the lessons he learned in Nazi concentration camps during Word War II. He shares how he saw first hand how the way people think about their adversity was a large contributor to survival. Those who had a strong inner sense of purpose were more likely to live despite very harsh conditions. Those who gave up or had no reason for going on were more likely to die. He summarizes these ideas this way:
Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.
When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
Knowing your why can save your life–maybe not always literally like a prisoner of war, but certainly figuratively. You are building a cathedral, and the cathedral is you. All of your adversity is a way to sculpt and mold who you are into something strong and resilient.
When adversity comes, as it surely will, your preparation, your expectations, and the meaning you give it will determine how you weather the storm. Why not spend some thought and time to get ready physically, financially, and mentally? If it works for you, resolve to get to bed a little earlier and wake up a little earlier to create a daily ritual that will guarantee you’ve taken care of what’s most important in your personal life.
What do you think? How has preparation, expectations, or your sense of purpose or meaning (or the lack thereof) affected your ability to handle adversity?