I was talking to someone yesterday on the phone and we were discussing the uncertain times we all face at the moment. I found myself concluding the conversation with a phrase which seems to be rather overused at the moment, “We’ll get through this and we’ll be stronger for it.” Later I considered my remark further and it led me to wonder, as have so many philosophers before me, does adversity make us stronger and furthermore, does it teach us more than any other means to be appreciative of what we have in life?
Over a hundred years ago, the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche believed that, “That which does not kill us outright makes us stronger.” This has been quoted hundreds of times and used frequently as an affirmation of resilience. For Nietzsche, suffering was an inevitable part of life. He did not consider that the act of suffering alone would lead to strength, but that suffering is an opportunity to make oneself stronger. Response is critical.
In February 2012, I was speeding along quite happily on the great rollercoaster of life, when all of a sudden, the car I was travelling in derailed and my entire world came crashing down, rather spectacularly. Of all the challenges I have ever faced in life, this was without a doubt the most testing and the most unyielding. It went on for a considerable time. One of my closest friends advised me at the time not to try and fight against the inevitable. I needed to accept what had happened and try my best to move forward, albeit incredibly slowly. She was right. It took every ounce of resilience and determination, but I did get through it.
As much as I didn’t enjoy any part of the experience, it was a very steep learning curve. I learnt not to take anything for granted anymore. From that point onwards, I knew that happiness in life was measured in much simpler terms. It did not involve extravagant holidays or materialism. Happiness came from such things as a day spent gardening, time spent with friends or a walk along the seafront. Looking back now, I know that had I not experienced this adverse period in my life, I would still be searching for happiness in all of the wrong places and still expecting perfection in all aspects of my life.
Like many people at the moment, our lives are punctuated daily with worries and uncertainties. This week has been particularly challenging. We are not alone. As much as I welcome the chance to be with my family more and to slow down the frantic pace of life, we all face anxieties concerning amongst other things, the virus, our loved ones in isolation, our jobs, and if and when this is going to end. It is the fact that we have so little control that scares us the most. Yet we really need to remember the key message of Nietzsche’s philosophy on adversity; our response to this crisis is crucial.
Over the past two weeks I have seen many people respond to this crisis in a variety of ways. Some have responded in a positive light and such altruistic stories are inspiring to us all. I think the one I heard that touched me the most was a story of a nurse who held the hand of an elderly person dying of coronavirus on his own and thus contracted the virus themselves. I’ve seen people delivering meals to NHS staff, cakes to teachers, choirs singing online, and communities uniting together, albeit from a distance.
Sadly, some see this situation from the viewpoint of their own selfish needs, especially influencers who have been moaning about their brand partnerships falling through and their relentless advertising posts remaining unliked. There are even those who have used the situation to their advantage financially such as ASOS and Sports Direct, who are putting their employees lives at risk with unsafe practices.
No matter how much we may try and fight against this, we have to accept it and make the situation as tolerable as we can. Of course, we all face good and bad days. Even those with the most positive view of life will still find themselves struggling at times. But what we are going through now is only temporary. It will not last forever. One day we shall look back on these times with rose tinted glasses and consider them a pivotal period in our lives. “Remember how we managed to get through the great lockdown of 2020?” Let’s put things into perspective and consider that there are many people who are far worse than us. Consider the person who is in a controlling and violent relationship and forced to spend more time than usual with their partner? What about families struggling to feed their children? There have been something like a million recent claims for Universal Credit.
The current situation we are experiencing is bound to force us to reconsider our priorities in life, along with the values and practices we adhere to. I have no doubt that it may lead to major changes in how we live our lives. For example: GCSE examinations have been cancelled and instead teachers will be required to submit estimated grades, which will be standardised based on a school’s previous results. Who knows if this might convince the exam boards that fewer examinations are a much better means of assessment? With so many people now working from home, could this lead to people no longer being required to work in offices, thus saving on travel costs and carbon emissions? Following this should we restructure the academic year and split up the long school holidays? Perhaps we may now strive for an improved balance between our working and private lives. The building of a Nightingale Hospital in nine days in London has shown us how effective the NHS can be when bureaucracy is eliminated. Yet perhaps most importantly, will we now realise that we should value more in society those professions that we need in a crisis, such as shop keepers, nurses, refuse collectors and delivery drivers and possibly consider whether we should pay them more? With the crisis we have also learnt the importance of supporting local businesses and offering support to our neighbours. Is this something that will continue after the crisis?
Whether you believe in adversity strengthening us or not, there is no doubt that this crisis will continue to impact our lives for many months and possibly even years. Whatever you do, follow the Government advice and stay safe.