Great Ideas: The Uses of Adversity

This morning I want to talk about the uses of adversity, and in doing so, I am mindful of a piece of wisdom that comes from the brilliant rabbi and scholar Adin Steinsaltz. Adversity is good, he says, though “the good is hidden” and “often several levels of excavation are needed to get to it.” Yet he also reminds us of an important teaching that absolutely needs to accompany this insight: “the injunction that we can say this only about our own suffering, and that we are forbidden to say it to someone else who is suffering.” “If you fall and bang your knee,” he says, “my response to you must not be, ‘Well, it’s for the best.’ On the contrary, if I see someone suffering, my one obligation is to try to help relieve that suffering. Telling a suffering person that everything is for the best is called, in the Talmud, ‘the sins of the friends of Job.’ Job suffered greatly, and his friends said to him, ‘Don’t you have faith in God?’ This is not what the friends should have said. … It is not appropriate to speak this theology while a person is struggling with pain and grief.”

I wish more people knew this. Though I agree with Rabbi Steinsaltz that good can come out of adversity-that what is ultimate is neither tragedy nor failure-still, when I am in the midst of a particular loss or sorrow, and I am with someone else in a personal conversation, the last thing I want is for that person to try to clean things up for me, tell me it’s all for the best. Don’t do that. Don’t theologize. Just acknowledge my feelings about how it hurts, how it feels unfair, how it sucks. Do that for me and do it for everyone. Just give a hug, or hold a hand. Be present. If you don’t know what to say, say THAT. Help them know that they are not alone.

At some point today, I hope you’ll take a moment to look at the purple insert in your order of service. It lists just some of the ways in which this congregation helps people stay encouraged and connected in good times and in bad. We’re a community of care, here at UUCA. Know that this is what you are helping to sustain and grow through your continued gifts of energy and money. It’s so important in times like these.

But Rabbi Steinsaltz is not done with us. What if the person in the midst of adversity is not someone else, but oneself? Here’s what he says: “If I fall and bang my own knee, I have a choice. I can wallow in my own pain, or I can use the experience to stimulate my faith and prompt me to examine my life more carefully and to grow, in empathy and understanding, from my experience.” That’s what Rabbi Steinsaltz says. Each of us is responsible for making some positive sense out of the reality of our suffering. Perhaps we need to wallow for a bit-we’re only human. But then comes the time to move beyond that and go deeper. Can adversity have positive uses? Is it really true, as psychologist Jonathan Haidt says in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, that “people need adversity, setbacks, and perhaps even trauma to reach the highest levels of strength, fulfillment, and personal development”? And, what does that look like? Rabbi Steinsaltz is saying to each of us today: choose to go deeper. Choose to find the good that is hidden beneath the pain. Seek it out courageously.

To this end, we’re going to explore the adversity story of a person named George Bailey. We know him better in December than in other months, perhaps, because he’s the main character in the Christmas movie classic It’s A Wonderful Life. Yet George Bailey is nothing less than a modern-day Job-figure, having something to say to us in every month. So much to learn from his story. Starting with an up-close look at his particular struggle. See if any of it resonates with you. I know it does with me.

When George Bailey was a teenager, a fantasy formed in his mind of being a world traveler, going to Tahiti, sailing the Emerald Sea-exploring all these exotic locations and more, far away from Bedford Falls, the boring town of his birth. As he grew older, the hopes only grew more ambitious. In the movie, when he’s 21, we see him buying luggage for his trip to Europe. He’s got his life all figured out. First he’ll go to Europe, and then he’ll go to college, and then he’s going to build things: skyscrapers hundreds of feet high, bridges a mile long. He’s going to be a millionaire.

It’s around this time that his father asks him if he’d be interested in returning home after college to run the family business, the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan Company. Hearing this, George goes quiet. Right before, he was laughing and joking raucously with everyone in the house, but when his father asked him this question point blank, George got real quiet. Said, “I couldn’t face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a stuffy little office. I want to do something big, something important with my life!”

Just imagine how George’s father hears this-what this says about how his son misunderstands him. Parents and children miss each other like this all the time. George isn’t seeing his father’s life with eyes of compassion. He’s too caught up in his own success fantasy of skyscrapers and bridges and lots of money.

But you know what happens next. Even if you’ve never seen It’s A Wonderful Life, I’ll bet you know. George begins living into one of the mysteries of the human condition, which is the reality of limits. As a member of the middle class, naturally he’s been brought up believing that people are free to control their own destinies. No limits. Just do it. The only person stopping you from climbing the success ladder … is you. This is where George is coming from. This forms the core of his youth. But now one event after another is going to expose the lie.

His father dies, and George must give up his trip to Europe so he can settle his father’s business affairs. The long road of missed opportunities and regret begins. Then, just as he’s handing off important papers to the Building and Loan’s Board of Trustees, moments before he’s out the door on the way to college, his father’s arch-enemy, Scrooge-like Henry F. Potter, makes a motion that the Building and Loan dissolve. Potter, who is wealthy beyond measure and could easily afford to give, asks, “Are we running a business or a charity ward?” Hearing this, something snaps in George and he finds himself saying to Potter: “You’re right when you say my father was no business man. I know that. […] But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter. And what’s wrong with that? […] Doesn’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers? […] Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about … they do most of the living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be.”

What a wonderful but ironic speech! This is the same person for whom success in life is equivalent to world travel and skyscrapers and bridges and lots of money. This is the same person who basically told his father that he and his stuffy office were small and unimportant. Yet already we are seeing some of the uses of adversity. One of the benefits is that it challenges us to get clearer about what it is we genuinely value, and we discover that true success and happiness in life can mean something very different from what we think they mean. Only in the moment of facing down Henry F. Potter does George realize in himself a genuine and deep appreciation for what it is his Dad did. Only in the heat of that challenging moment. It was a gift of adversity-although it is not necessarily a gift that makes things simpler. George now has two competing success visions warring away in his heart. One is focused on service to his community and being rooted in that community; the other is focused on an almost Peter Pan-like desire to travel and build things and make lots of money. More on this internal conflict in a bit. For now, it’s enough to acknowledge that George’s speech was a moment of great personal discovery, and inspiring for others as well. The next thing that happens is that Building and Loan Board rejects the motion to dissolve but only if George takes over his father’s job as leader. And he does, but with great ambivalence. Life keeps on throwing him curveballs. Once, he thought he had it all figured out. But now he’s more like the poet Dante, who once said about midlife, “I found myself within a dark woods / where the straight way was lost.” What else can he do, but keep moving? He gives his college funds to his younger brother, Harry, and goes to work.

Circumstances crowd out the fantasies of youth and supersede them. In the end, George finds himself where he thought he’d never be: working in his Dad’s stuffy little office, stuck in Bedford Falls. He gets to continue his father’s work of economic justice in the community, and while this is important to him, still, his heart is at war with itself. Regret upon regret pile up. He’s just a mess of contradictions. He marries a beautiful caring wife, he has wonderful children, he is loved and respected throughout Bedford Falls, but all the wild wonderful energy and humor of his youth gradually go away. He’s cranky. He’s cynical. “I want to do what I want to do,” he complains, but no one’s listening.

The bounce in his soul is gone. And it’s like this with so many people today. The adversity of conflicted selves, heavy with regret. Thinking and feeling they are failures even as they are doing great work in the world. Afraid because of the economy, even as they are surrounded by something far more reliable than money ever could be, which is family and friendship, the beloved community of a place light this, and within: the sustaining and transforming power of the Spirit of Life. As close-up to our individual lives as we are, who are we to judge them wrong, or a failure? Who are we to offer up a global judgment like this, as if we were able to transcend our myopia and see ourselves from a God’s-eye point-of-view?

The bounce is gone. And if it’s gone, how is a person going to bounce back in the face of sudden crisis and change? The problem just escalates.

Here’s what this looks like for George. What happens is that absent-minded Uncle Billy misplaces the $8000 which was supposed to have been deposited in the Building and Loan funds. George faces bankruptcy, scandal, prison…. In complete desperation, he sees no alternative but to turn to his enemy Henry F. Potter for help. Asks for a loan. And Potter, who sits in the cat bird’s seat now, says to George, “Look at you. You used to be so cocky. You were going out to conquer the world! You once called me a warped, frustrated, old man. What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk, crawling in here on your hands and knees, begging for help.”

It’s horrible. I mean, the movie may be called It’s a Wonderful Life, but when it gets down to this part, I’m watching it through my fingers, like I do with the The Exorcist or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Especially the scene where George wanders onto the bridge near Bedford Falls. It’s night and snow falls in large sticky flakes. George’s face is screwed up in pain. Potter’s words ring in his mind-“you’re worth more dead than alive.” Below him-the raging torrent of a river. He’s thinking suicide. He’s thinking The End.

But is it? Despite all that has happened, can George bounce back? And we as well? For I know that George is not alone with his outrageous reversals of fortune. Some of us may be on that bridge with George right now, and the rest of us can relate. The past few years have brought reversals of fortune to us all, in some way or another. Bad things happening to good people. It can feel so unfair.

But what happens next in the story illustrates yet another use of adversity: we learn that we are stronger than we know…..

Picture the scene. There he is, George Bailey, a man who’s lost the bounce in his soul and it’s so flat, it can’t cope with the loss of $8000. He just can’t take it any more. He finds himself alone, beaten, standing on a snowy bridge in the night, raging river below. Suicide seems the only way. And then-splash! Someone else has taken a dive! And suddenly, instinct takes over. Takes him two seconds to grasp the situation, and he jumps right in to save that person who’s drowning. He risks his life to save another.

Now this is incredible. Adversity has broken him down completely, and yet, in the midst of direst weakness, he discovers that strength still remains. And so can we. You know, often we can find ourselves saying, as we contemplate horrible possibilities, “If such-and-such happened, I could never survive it.” Or, “If such-and-so happened, I wouldn’t know what to do.” And yet when the worst happens, and we go numb with shock, we discover a persistence within us simply to take things one step at a time, one moment at a time. Events rush and swirl past us. The broken pieces of life overwhelm, but for a time we let things be. It is enough just to keep moving, and somehow we do. Somehow we just keep going. “More and more I have come to admire resilience,” writes poet Jane Hirschfield.

“Not the simple resistance of a pillow,
whose foam returns over and over to the same shape,
but the sinuous tenacity of a tree:
finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns to another.
A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers, mitochondria, figs
all this resinous, unretractable earth.”

Adversity helps us discover this same persistence in ourselves, when the worst happens, and we come to realize we are stronger than we ever thought possible. A confidence in ourselves starts to grow, and we learn that, whatever else the future may bring, we have stood in the fire before, and we can stand in the fire again. We can. We are stronger than we know.

This is what adversity teaches. In fact, there are times when it lifts us out of ourselves completely, and we find ourselves blessed with a better dream and a healing vision of life that we realize directly, first-hand-one we never could have known otherwise. Adversity can have this use as well.

Here’s how it happens for George. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that the person he saved from drowning is none other than Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class. He’s an angel, and he comes to earth to give George a great supernatural gift: direct experience of what Bedford Falls would have become had he never been born.

And it’s terrible. Horrible. Without George Bailey, Bedford Falls turned out to be a hellish place. And it blows his mind. It opens it up. He was living a wonderful life without knowing it. Everything he honestly and truly needed for happiness, he already had. Even with all the bad luck circumstances that seemed, time and again, to prevent him from pursuing his youthful hopes-even though he never became a world traveler, or went to college; even though he never built a skyscraper hundreds of feet high or a bridge a mile long-even so: the worth of his life was diminished not one whit. Worthy dreams can happen, even in a stuffy small office, in boring Bedford Falls. A hero journey, right there in the everyday. Being there for people in need, again and again, even when it put him at risk. Standing up for the little guy against bullies like Henry F. Potter.

Even in Bedford Falls, greatness can happen. And George finally gets it. The big picture pulls all the pieces of his life together, grasps him in his soul, heals his conflicted and regret-filled heart. The greatness he has always longed for-he realizes that he’s already been doing it. His father as well. And now he doesn’t want to give it up. The hero adventure is right here and right now! Who needs to travel to exotic locations like Tahiti, when you can have everything you want in Bedford Falls? ” Clarence!” he cries, “Clarence! Help me, Clarence. Get me back. Get me back. I don’t care what happens to me. Get me back to my wife and kids. Help me, Clarence, please. Please! I want to live again! I want to live again. I want to live again.”

Change your mind, and life changes. George Bailey wants to live again, and I would have you see clearly how badly he wants it. He wants it despite the fact that, as far as he knows, he’s still out $8000. Despite the fact that coming back to life will mean facing bankruptcy, scandal, prison…. But it no longer matters. How can he give up the life that he’s always wanted, which is the life he’s always been living but only now realizes it?

Wherever you are this morning-whatever adversity you might be facing – I invite you to consider its uses. It clarifies our values, it teaches us that we are stronger than we know, and it also makes us relentlessly hungry for a transformed vision of who we are. We do not need to be visited by an actual angel to learn how to see our lives through angel eyes. Eyes that see clearly the truth of the preciousness of friendship and community and life even if some version of bankruptcy or scandal awaits us. The preciousness of friendship and community and life… And also this: how the world needs us and doesn’t care that we might never have traveled to that exotic location, or gone to that school, or built that mile long bridge.

Tap into angel vision, and the bounce in our souls comes back.