Adversity, like it or not, is the great teacher. We have it now, may get more, but every generation back to the dawn has known it. Some are crushed by adversity, wars, losses, depression, disease, and disconsolation – unable to rally. Others grow stronger from it, rising like the Phoenix from ashes. The trick is to figure out how to be strive and grow, not shrink and writhe in distress.
In the dark days of World War II, filled with moral, human, emotional, and physical destruction, Winston Churchill stood firm. His clarity lifted others. Victory comes from believing in the possible, then finding the power within – to make it so, whatever the challenge or odds.
“Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities,” he wrote, “because it is the quality that guarantees all others,” echoing Samuel Johnson. Both men were right, of course.
Courage vanquishes fear, and without fear we reach heights never imagined in its shadow. We gain the confidence needed to persevere, and then create unlikely outcomes.
But there is more to overcoming adversity than courage, confidence, and sustained conviction. These are the start, the foundation. On that foundation, fortified by faith and life history, we have to build a fortress, one that lasts, one that repels downdrafts, repeated disappointments, battles waged when inspiration is low, enthusiasm bumping along the bottom, when we are exhausted.
This is true of individuals, and no less of nations. It was true of Churchill personally, as much as the nation he led. Throughout the war, from Dunkirk to Normandy and VE-Day, Churchill was forced to be his own source of inspiration – against his ‘black dog,’ depression.
To do that, to win that battle every day, get beyond the recurring downdraft, he built on that foundation of courage. He built something that would last. He reduced life to what he knew with absolute certainty, and never lost faith in what he knew to be true.
Later, he would write: “All great things are simple and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope.” And…from where does the power come to hold firmly to such things, to defend them against personal and international onslaught?
Maybe Corinthians gives us a hint, another way of explaining “true north” and defeating adversity. “These three – faith, hope, and love abide; the greatest of these is love.” Why, after all, do men dare and strive, risk and rally, focus on and often die for the values Churchill named?
We grow in proportion to risks taken, love shown, and degree to which we get beyond ourselves. Ironically, adversity – facing fear, loss, stress, and discomfort – actually motivates the courage, love, and fight that lies within, allowing us to rise, grow, and beat the adversity – to win.
Again, Churchill: “Kites fly highest against the wind, not with it.” What a metaphor. Only when stressed, pressed, and threatened with loss, do we find what we really have, who we really are, and then – more often than not – discover we have far more within than we knew.
Only when the stakes get really high, do we bear down, forget distractions, work with all we have to win, taking responsibility for the outcome, often turning the dial, changing everything.
The wonder of it is that sometimes, in one life, a few lives, the life of a nation – by defending those values Churchill understood, recalling the message of Corinthians, or just sitting at a window and resolving to get up and to make a difference, things do change.
The interesting part is we think we are unique, but the formula is timeless: Keep perspective, envision winning, find the courage to beat fear, then start working, building on that foundation – and do not give up.
Cicero knew a hero lurked in every soul, often summoned in adversity. “It is the character of a brave and resolute man not to be ruffled by adversity…” and that character reinforces itself.
Frederick Nietzsche, a wandering mind of the 1800s, despised nihilism, thought societies in decline devalue life, and railed against that slide. His words apply with equal force today.
Pushing society to think and grow not shrink and decay, he wrote: “What does not kill me makes me stronger…This is my philosophy in a nutshell.” Adversity, like it or not, is the great teacher.
As society gets softer and excuses multiply, as dependence and division raise adversity – we have a simple choice. We can either be crushed by it, or rally to it – defend higher values and defeat defeatism, or let it win. Is there really a choice? As Churchill wrote: “Attitude is a little thing that makes a BIG difference.” We know we have the attitude, now just need to use it.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.