Adversity is an irreducible fact of life. Although we can and should learn from all experiences, both positive and negative, bestselling author Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal believes that adversity—whether it’s illness, heartbreak or grief—is by far the best teacher most of us will ever encounter.
His new book, “The Gift of Adversity,” argues that true innovation, emotional resilience and wisdom can only come from understanding the adversity we have experienced—and that, even when life is hardest, there are meanings and gifts to be found. In this exclusive essay for Bookish, Rosenthal address five big life challenges and reveals their surprising silver linings.
Between night feeds, disrupted sleep, diaper changing and seemingly endless demands, raising an infant is nothing if not difficult: How do we get through it? Paradoxically, many parents look back fondly at those times that bonded us so closely with our child. There may be a genetic basis for this. Babies are programmed to be adorable and we are programmed to want to adore them: all part of life’s design. In addition, new parents are helped by the release in their brains of the hormone oxytocin, which promotes emotional closeness and bonding. By the time the baby is three months old and is able to smile back at us, the difficulties are forgiven, if not forgotten, and the deal is clinched.
Every brain is different and most people have some areas of deficit. But, in my experience, whenever there is a specific deficit, there is almost always compensation in other areas. In my book, I talk about how a deficit in my own brain, in the area of spatial relations—which makes me frequently lose my way—is compensated for by verbal abilities, so that as a child I would often memorize street names to get to places.
Loss of a romantic relationship is almost always followed by a period of sadness—a type of grieving. Our brains, though, are fortunately adapted to deal with loss. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t have survived as a species. Research shows that loss is followed by a periods of anger and protest, withdrawal and sadness and finally re-attachment. Often when people reflect on the loss of a romantic partner, they say: “It was for the best. The new person is a much better match for me than my previous partner.” Once again, adversity has been a gift.
Loss of a parent
The loss of a parent is a sad but almost universal rite of passage. Your parents have known you from the day you were born. The memories of your childhood, coming of age and emergence into adulthood are all registered in their mind. If they were good parents they loved you more than almost anybody else. Watching them decline or losing them suddenly is an occasion for profound grief, which all religions have guidelines and rituals to assuage. In my book, I deal with these transitions. Losing one’s parents is part of growing up and becoming the senior generation. Understanding everything your parents meant to you and the responsibility that you now bear for the next generations is a stimulus for the development of wisdom.
Loss of a child
On the scale that measures the impact of life events on a person’s psyche, loss of a child ranks at the top of the list. When you think of how anyone recovers from such a major loss, it seems almost unfathomable. And yet they do. On a recent trip to Long Island I walked through a park called Avalon, developed by hedge fund owner Richard Simons in memory of his deceased son, who died when hit by a car while riding his bicycle. The grieving father had turned these acres of land into fields of wild flowers, ponds, walkways, and had installed rock structures, including one heartbreaking statue of a young man whose broken body is falling down a rock. This big-hearted man had transformed his heartache into a gift for all humanity to enjoy. It is hard to walk among those gardens without a sense of profound wonder at the powers of the human mind.
The New York Times bestselling author of “Transcendence: Healing and Transformation Through Transcendental Meditation,” Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D., is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School. He conducted research at the National Institute of Mental Health as a research fellow, researcher, and senior researcher for more than 20 years, and was the first psychiatrist to describe and diagnose Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Rosenthal is the author of more than 200 scholarly articles, as well as books for the general public, including “Winter Blues” and “The Emotional Revolution.”