What do we mean by adversity?

You and I mostly walk along in a path of familiarity. We know or can envision how things will unfold. I get up in the morning, eat breakfast, drive to the office, start into my day, and work on projects, have meetings, go shopping… You might go to school, or raise children, or work outside your home. For the most part you probably have routines that are familiar to you as well.

Sometimes we get surprised. It might be in a positive way—something happens that brings us closer to a desired outcome. I get a call out of the blue from a colleague who has a potential opportunity for me and wants me to submit a proposal for some work. You receive a bonus at work, or a person you’re interested in asks you out on a date.

Sometimes surprises are neither positive nor negative–they just bring in an element of the unexpected. Someone posts something on Facebook that entertains or amuses us, or says something interesting or insightful that we hadn’t thought about before.

But sometimes things happen that we experience as negative. They get in our way, or make us feel uncomfortable, or cause us pain. I wake up with an aching back.  The transmission on my car goes out. I found out that a high school friend has died far too young. It is this last category that we think of as adversity. The meaning of the word comes from the Latin: (ad=toward, vers=turn)–to turn toward–to oppose–to present difficulties.

There are a million adversities that life can bring. Illnesses, unexpected problems, accidents, disappointments… Each is different in its own way, but at some level they also share common elements. The details of how we deal with them may differ, but our reactions to them, and the general types of things we do to get through/past/around them have some similarities.

TofA Image

This graphic shows what I think of as the “Terrain of Adversity.” We can describe the challenges we face on several dimensions. The first one is Level of Control. This has to do with the extent to which you voluntarily entered the situation of adversity. At one end are things you did knowing that there would be some tough work involved. Going to school is one of them. Entering the military is another. At the other end are adversities that were forced upon you by some element that you did not choose or control. Abuse, bullying, being kidnapped or taken prisoner—all of these are examples of situations at the low end of the control dimension. In the middle of the range are things that you did not choose, but that are more a factor of the nature of life and the world—a medical condition, an aging parent, a tornado are all examples of these.

These distinctions are not always clear-cut. For instance, behavioral choices can increase the likelihood of certain health conditions.

The second dimension is Length of Impact. Some challenges are momentary, lasting a very short time (seconds, minutes, or hours). These could include such things as an angry encounter with another person, or a flat tire on your car. There are other challenges that last somewhat longer (perhaps days, weeks, or months). Examples might include an episode of physical illness, military basic training, or the loss of a job. Finally, there are challenges that last for a relatively long time (a period of years, and maybe even a lifetime). Examples might include a physical disability, or the birth of a child with special needs.

Let’s look at a few examples. These are plotted on the graphic above.

A. Someone cuts you off in traffic. You’re driving along, and someone comes alongside you at a fairly high speed, cuts in front of you, and nearly causes you to crash. This would be an example of something that occurred in a relatively short period of time, and something you had little control over (but perhaps some ability to predict if you were alert to the traffic around you).

B. You are in a foreign country fighting a war and are taken prisoner and sent to an internment camp with little hope of escape or release. (Read the story of Louis Zamperini for a real-life example of how one person coped with this situation.) This is an example of something that you had no control over, lasting for a relatively long time).

C. You find out that the child you are carrying will be born with a hereditary medical condition that will require lifelong attention and care. This is an example of something that you could not control but may have been able to foresee to some degree, that will last for a very long time.

D. You find yourself struggling in a difficult class you need to pass to complete your major course of study. This is an example of a challenge that is related to a choice you made (high control) that will last for a moderate period of time.

Think of some of the challenges you are facing. Where would you locate them on this map?

There is a third dimension to consider–Impact–the level of disruption the adversity causes in your life. Waking up with the flu might be hugely disruptive if it happens the day before your wedding, but less so if it happens during a time when you have no critical events on your calendar for a few days.

I’ll explore this issue of impact more in a future post, but for now there are a few important points to make:

  1. Most of us would agree that the total impact of a challenge generally increases with a longer time span and less control. Things that are imposed on us and last a long time, such as the challenges faced by the Cleveland, Ohio girls who were kidnapped, imprisoned, and assaulted over a period of years, are generally agreed to be more “awful” than things that last a shorter time are voluntary in nature (such as the stress that comes from running a 5k race in 90-degree weather).
  2. Different people may experience the same challenge very differently—high impact for one, lower impact for another.
  3. You may experience the same challenge differently at different times in your life, depending on the specific circumstances.

Once we recognize the common ground that underlies the various forms of adversity we encounter, we can begin to think about how to use voluntary challenges and everyday adversities to build the perspectives and skills that will help us weather more significant problems.