New scientific research suggests that resilience isn’t something with which only a fortunate few of us have been born, but rather something we can all take specific action to develop. To build strength out of adversity, we need a catalyst. What we need, according to Dr. Alex Lickerman, author of The Undefeated Mind, is wisdom―wisdom that adversity has the potential to teach us.
We are, all of us, meaning-seaking creatures
We may begin life as pleasure seekers and pain avoiders, but as our brains develop and language begins flowing from our mouths, we soon begin demaning to know the why of things, as any parent can attest who’s been subjected to the inexhaustible energy children have for asking why the sun shines or the sky is blue.
As we grow from toddlers to children and our thinking becomes more self-reflective, at some point we narrow the scope of our investigation into the purpose of things down to one overriding question: ‘For what purpose do we live?’ And while some of us may only be asking how we’d like to spend our lives, others are asking about the meaning of life itself, seeking not just an answer but rather the answer, the ultimate reason for which we all born.
Our desire to be happy
We actually have a little choice about wanting to become happy as the heart does about pumping blood. We’re incapable of wanting not to become happy. The pursuit of happiness isn’t merely an inalienable right with which we’re endowed or an activity we’re capable of choosing: it’s psychological law we must obey. Even people who appear to want nothing to do with happiness, like those so immersed in self-hatred that their principle aim becomes self-sabotage, will say they haven’t lost their desire for happiness so much as ceased to believe they deserve it.
But if happiness is indeed our primary function, why is it so difficult to achieve? Perhaps for at least two reasons.
First, because merely desiring happiness more than anything else doesn’t itself teach us how to achieve it. Certainly pleasure plays an important role in contributing to happiness, but to appreciate how an existence can be overflowing with pleasure and still be miserable we only need look at people for whom certain pleasures (sex, gambling, drugs and so on) send all other considerations spinning off into the distance and often cause the collapse of the very lives they delight.
Second, happiness is difficult to achieve: it requires not only the presence of joy but also the absence of suffering. We may think things that bring us joy–a good job, money, a loving spouse, and so on–simultaneously immunize us against suffering, but if anything they actually make us more vulnerable to suffering by providing us more attachments to lose. And avoiding the pain of loss is more important than experiencing the joy of gain.
Obtaining benefit from adversity
Life, a core principle of Nichiren Buddhism teaches, is win or lose. Right and wrong, success and failure, gain and lose–all constitute important and related issues to be sure, but nothing, according to Nichiren Buddhism, boosts happiness more than victory or causes more misery than defeat.
How do we know when true victory occurs?
When the benefit we obtain from confronting an obstacle is enough to make us glad–or at least accepting–that it stood in our way in the first place. Which sometimes means solving problems not in the ways we want.
At other times, the true obstacle isn’t the obstacle in front of us but the obstacle inside of us. Perhaps it’s our inflexibility, our arrogance, or our fear, but when victory over external barriers is contigent upon victory over internal ones, the greatest benefit a situation has to offer us is wisdom.