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The Gift of Adversity: The Unexpected Benefits of Life’s Difficulties, Setbacks, and Imperfections (Book Review)

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“Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are.” — Arthur Golden

Do your setbacks hold you back?  Do you stand strong when tested?   Do you turn your worst experiences into your greatest sources of personal growth?

Perhaps the most important question is, are you a victim of circumstance or are you the architect of your destiny?

Adversity can build you up, or tear you down.  It depends on your lens and your choices that follow the setbacks, trials, and unfortunate events that you face.

I received a review copy of The Gift of Adversity: The Unexpected Benefits of Life’s Difficulties, Setbacks, and Imperfections, by Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D.  I agreed to write a review of the book, if I found it useful for readers of Sources of Insight.

In this memoire, best-selling author and psychiatrist Rosenthal tackles the topic of adversity in a very deep and significant way.   Through stories and reflection, he shows us that to live authentic and meaningful lives, we need to engage with our own failures and defeats.  The key is to find value in our mistakes and misfortunes, and to use adversity as a way to grow stronger and wiser throughout life.

Rosenthal talks about three flavors of adversity:   the bad things that happen to us, the adversity we bring about ourselves, and the adversity that we seek out.  He also share methods and techniques for dealing with adversity, including journaling, meditation, and healthy habits for the body and mind to fortify your emotions.

With that in mind, let’s dive into The Gift of Adversity

What’s In It For You?

Here’s a sampling of some of the things you’ll learn from The Gift of Adversity:

  • How what happens to us does not have to define us
  • How to embrace adversity in a healthy way
  • How to engage with your failures and defeats as a way to live an authentic and meaningful life
  • How to use the hardest lessons in life as your greatest gifts that last a lifetime
  • How to more effectively confront and understand the adversity we have experienced
  • How to build emotional resilience
  • How to use adversity as one of your greatest teachers for life
  • How to use adversity to make yourself stronger
  • How to gain insights and wisdom from your own adversities
  • How to gain insights and wisdom from everyone around you including family members, colleagues and friends

Chapters at a Glance

  • Chapter 1 — The Thumbs Must Go
  • Chapter 2 — An Accident
  • Chapter 3 — Crime and Punishment
  • Chapter 4 — The Persistence and Fragility of Memory
  • Chapter 5 — Know Your Brain
  • Chapter 6 — Know Your Body
  • Chapter 7 — Be Yourself
  • Chapter 8 — The Weight of History
  • Chapter 9 — Mrs. Brown’s “Rular”
  • Chapter 10 — All the Lonely People
  • Chapter 11 — Lena and Lucas
  • Chapter 12 — Lessons from a Fly
  • Chapter 13 — The Fixer
  • Chapter 14 — The Long Reach of Sexual Trauma
  • Chapter 15 — Trouble with My Father
  • Chapter 16 — Mysteries of Mood
  • Chapter 17 — Medical School
  • Chapter 18 — A Brush with the South African Police
  • Chapter 19 — A Brutal Attack
  • Chapter 20 — Born Again
  • Chapter 21 – Bootcamp
  • Chapter 22 – Homeland
  • Chapter 23 – Namibia
  • Chapter 24 — Leaving Home
  • Chapter 25 — New York City
  • Chapter 26 — Hostile Takeover
  • Chapter 27 — Supervising a Supervisor
  • Chapter 28 — What are the Questions?
  • Chapter 29 — Leaving the NIMH
  • Chapter 30 — Losing and Choosing
  • Chapter 31 — Pride and Prejudice and Sociopaths
  • Chapter 32 — Lessons from a Scam
  • Chapter 33 — A Ghost from the Past
  • Chapter 34 — Don’t Hold on to Grudges
  • Chapter 35 — Hold on to Dreams
  • Chapter 36 — Taking Responsibility
  • Chapter 37 — Reciprocity in Relationships
  • Chapter 38 — Learning Something from Everyone
  • Chapter 39 — Telling a Story
  • Chapter 40 — The Gift of Meditation
  • Chapter 41 — By Force of Habit
  • Chapter 42 — The Quest for Excellence
  • Chapter 43 — Death in the Desert
  • Chapter 44 — High Stakes Negotiations at Midnight
  • Chapter 45 — A Cousin in Trouble
  • Chapter 46 — Meeting with Viktor Frankl
  • Chapter 47 — A Patriarch Takes His Leave
  • Chapter 48 — Dad’s Last Day
  • Chapter 49 — The Death of Galadriel
  • Chapter 50 — Appointment in Samarra
  • Chapter 51 — Life After Death
  • Chapter 52 — It’s Never Too Late to Say, ‘I Love You’

Key Features

Here are some of the key features of The Gift of Adversity:

  • Easy to read.   The author is a powerful storyteller and writes in a way that is both easy to read, and enjoyable to read.
  • Key Take Aways.   Rosenthal ends each chapter of The Gift of Adversity with a reflection or conclusion. .  For example, in his chapter on grudges, Rosenthal writes:  “Grudges probably harm those who harbor them more than those at whom they are directed.  So, if only for your own sake, avoid registering grudges, and, if you have a grudge list, tear it up!”
  • Story-driven.   The author uses stories to inspire and enlighten us as he weaves memories, personal anecdotes, and vignettes into journeys of the heart and mind.
  • Timeless wisdom.  Rosenthal has filled the book with great wisdom and quotable quotes.  For example, in his chapter on dreams, Rosenthal writes: “In order to accomplish any long-term goal, it is useful and perhaps necessary to have a dream – a dream as distinct from just an idea.”

Here is a sampling of some of my favorite nuggets from the book …

Reflect with Your Actions What is Most Important in Life

Life’s short.  Know what matters to you, and do more of that.  Rosenthal writes:

“Shakespeare wrote often and poignantly about the ravages of time and argued that we should use this awareness to heighten and intensify feelings of love – ‘to love that well which though must leave ere long.’ 

Awareness of your own mortality can sharpen your feelings and sense of purpose.  Use that awareness to make sure your actions reflect what is most important in your life.”

How To Keep Going

When the going gets tough, the tough find meaning.  Rosenthal writes:

“… Frankl was able to transcend horrors by the power of his intellect, imagination, and humanity.  As a doctor intrigued by the brain and the mind, Frankl not only rose above his settings, but made use of it, to ask a key question: in dire situations, such as concentration camp, what can a person do to keep going? The answer, as his title suggests, is to find some meaning – something that continues to make life worth living even in the face of disaster.”

The Puzzle of Altruism

If it’s all about self-preservation, why do we care about each other?   Maybe altruism is a survival advantage, or maybe care-taking is simply an aspect of love.  Rosenthal writes:

“The puzzle of altruism has long been debated amongst scholars of evolution.  If the genes that drive our behavior are so selfish, they wonder, why do we see examples of altruism that drives one to care about the wellbeing of others even after one’s own death?  The latest theory, expounded most famously by sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, is that as different groups of organisms compete with one another, those groups that take care of their members will have an advantage in the battle for survival.  Or perhaps you would prefer to see care-taking as an aspect of love.  Both could be true.”

Death is Inconvenient

Death happens.  You know the saying, “You can run, but you can’t hide.”  But death is also inconvenient.  And, it can be freakishly unpredictable.  Rosenthal writes:

“When I have been powerfully focused on a goal, like anticipating Josh’s wedding, visiting my aging mother in South Africa, or completing a writing or research project, I have sometimes thought, ‘Not now – this would not be a good time to die.’  Then invariably, I smile to myself.  Do I really thing death will wait until I decide that the time is right to die?  And indeed, is there ever a good time to die?  I smile too at Emily Dickinson’s immortal words: ‘Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me.’  With beautiful irony, she seems to be saying, “How nice of Death to realize how busy I was and pick me up personally instead of waiting for me to be ready.’”

Stand Up to Bullies and Recruit Others in that Venture

Rosenthal shares a story where he was bullied on a train by the conductor.  He inspired passengers on the train to help him out.   Rosenthal writes:

“The Sturm and Drang was resolved simply by paying a fine.  Why didn’t the conductor say so in the first place? I wondered.  But I knew the answer.  He didn’t want a resolution, he wanted a fight – and to show me who was boss. … Stand up to bullies whenever you safely can, and recruit others in that venture whenever possible.”

Viktor Frankl Lessons

Rosenthal shares lessons he learned from Viktor Fankl:

  • It is possible to survive the most terrible of ordeals and emerge from it with one’s body, mint and spirit intact.
  • You can find meaning even in the midst of terrible adversity.
  • No group of people is entirely good or evil: there are good and evil people in every group.
  • It is the rare person who is a hero in the sense that he or she is willing to go up against a regime of terror.
  • Finally a single individual can emerge triumphantly out of the rubble and live, love, speak, write, and influence millions of others.

Treat Ghosts as a Challenge and Tackle Them

Don’t fear your ghosts.  Tackle them.  Rosenthal writes:

“Once in a while we are visited by ghosts from our past.  Should a ghost visit you, treat it as a challenge and tackle it with all the resources you can muster.  As with all adventures, be open to learning, and pick the right friends, fellows (and doctors) to see you through the journey.”

Our Choices Make Us Who We Are

The sum of our choices shapes our lives, both the paths we take and how we choose to respond to whatever happens to us along the way.  Rosenthal writes:

“I see things otherwise.  I agree with Frost.  Whatever road a person takes is by definition the road less traveled because we are each one of us on a unique journey.  The paths we choose – and the gains and losses we sustain in taking those paths – shape the scope and contours of our lives.  Our choices make us who we are.”

Draw Strength from Examples

Examples of strength and courage are all around us.  Draw from them.  Rosenthal writes:

“I stopped myself from brooding by recalling Sid Malitz, the acting director at Columbia, and other colleagues who had maintained their dignity in the face of reversals of fortune, and I drew strength from their examples. “

Be the Architect of Your Own Destiny

Don’t be a victim and don’t play the blame game.  Rise above your circumstances and design a new story forward.  Rosenthal writes:

“Many people enter psychotherapy for problems they see as the result of repeated bad luck or the misbehavior of others.  Such chronic failure to take responsibility leaves people like victims of fate rather than architects of their own destiny, which is not an empowering state of mind.  Why do they think this way?  Because it is painful to admit errors and shortcomings.    It is generally far more painful, however, to suffer the consequences as they play out over time.  That’s what happens to people who habitually fail to take responsibility for their actions.”

You’ll Manage Too

If other people can do it, so can you.  Rosenthal writes:

“I had dreaded bootcamp, in part because, having been stabbed only one year before, I felt physically vulnerable.  But I looked around at others, I knew who had successfully passed through this rite of passage and I said to myself, ‘If they managed, chances are you’ll manage too.’”

Release the Tide in You

Use each day to release your tide.  Rosenthal writes:

“Within a year of my attack, Leora and I had met, fallen in love, married, and conceived Joshua.  I have often thought of that line from Hamlet, ‘There is a tide in the affairs of me, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.’  Being attached had released such a tide in me, and I took it at the flood.  The near-death experience also gave me a lasting appreciation of each day and the opportunity to enjoy and contribute that each day brings.”

Don’t let bad things break you.   Bad things happen to good people all the time.   Grow stronger and learn from adversity.

Get the Book

The Gift of Adversity: The Unexpected Benefits of Life’s Difficulties, Setbacks, and Imperfections, by Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D. is available on Amazon.

The Gift of Adversity: The Unexpected Benefits of Life’s Difficulties, Setbacks, and Imperfections, by Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D.

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12 Comments on "The Gift of Adversity: The Unexpected Benefits of Life’s Difficulties, Setbacks, and Imperfections (Book Review)"

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  1. Juliet says:

    Hi JD

    Any idea when this book will be available on Kindle? Looks like a good read!

    Thanks,
    Juliet

    • JD says:

      Hey Juliet,

      The Kindle version is available now. On Amazon, there should be a link at the top to hop over to the Kindle version.

      • Juliet says:

        Thanks JD
        Oh dear, must be the case of a regional thing….can’t get it on Kindle if you are based in South Africa.
        That is so frustrating when it happens!
        The same thing happens with music and regional rights.
        I find it quite bazaar. Us South Africans also want to be customers :)

  2. Sophia says:

    “Awareness of your own mortality can sharpen your feelings and sense of purpose.”

    How so? If we could die anytime and if this means all is over for us, then why bother with anything?
    If all one does will ultimately be lost, then why do anything?

    What is the underlying conviction that makes life seem worth living and work worth doing, despite the belief that ultimately, it’s all for nothing?

    • JD says:

      Good question.

      It’s not that it’s for nothing.

      It’s remember that life is short. Make the most of it and enjoy it while you can.

      A great reminder along these lines is to ask yourself who do you want to be and what experiences do you want to create … and do more of that each day.

  3. Sophia says:

    How can one enjoy something which one believes is not going to last?

    Could you explain that?

    • JD says:

      I don’t know anything that lasts, just some things last longer than others.

      Puppies don’t last, but I think Charles Schulz was right:
      “Happiness is a warm puppy.”

      Our days don’t last, but Seneca had some great words of wisdom:
      “Begin at once to live and count each separate day as a separate life.”

      Our moments don’t last, so savor those Hallmark moments.

      Dr. Seuss had it right, too:
      “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

      If you have a belief in your mind that nothing matters unless it lasts forever, then nothing ever will. But that’s a limiting belief.

      What a lot of people do is they focus on making meaning. They find their purpose. They spend more time in their values. They measure their life by the people’s whose lives they touch.

      If you’ve seen Rent, you’ll know “Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes.” Those are the minutes in a year. But counting the minutes, doesn’t count the smiles, the laughter, the sunsets, or even the cups of coffee.

      A good movie to watch about the power of “Now” is Peaceful Warrior.

  4. Sophia says:

    Thank you for your reply.

    I think you are working out of some assumptions that haven’t been stated yet.

    It seems those assumptions are in roundabout these:

    “This (life as it is usually lived) is as good as it gets.”
    “There is no such thing as a happiness that would be beyond aging, illness, death and separation.”
    “You have to take the good with the bad.”

    Holding these assumptions is common. But are they true?

    • JD says:

      No, those aren’t my assumptions, and it’s not how I model the path. I don’t work forward from assumptions in a deductive way. I work backward from empirical examples in an inductive (or, often, an abductive) way.

      But, I’m a patterns and practices kind of a guy (and the Cynefin Framework is relevant.)

      There’s plenty of wisdom of the ages to draw from. We learn a lot from people who have lived well, and we learn a lot from people who have died.

      The Book of Dead Philosophers teaches us how to die, and, interestingly, how to live.

  5. Sophia says:

    “Working backward from empirical examples in an inductive (or, often, an abductive) way” and being a “patterns and practices kind of a guy” still requires a philosophical framework of beliefs and values on which said working and thinking about said working is based. W. V. O. Quine talks about this problem in his “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.”

    If something can be taught and learned, then it has to be possible to verbalize it explicitly. If it cannot be taught and learned, if it is something that a person either has or doesn’t have, then we’re in the domain of elitism and ego boosting …

    It’s not like, say, tasting coffee or bungee jumping will automatically convince a person that drinking coffee or bungee jumping is enjoyable or a good thing (and that conversely, only an abnormal person would dislike it). There’s actually quite a bit of thinking involved in “experiencing,” although many people gloss over this.

    Anyway, I sense there is a lot more to your stance (I have your book Agile Results, btw), and to Rosenthal’s, but you’re not revealing it. And at this point, I seem to be unable to ask you the questions that would prompt you to reveal it.

    Thanks, and take care.

  6. Sophia says:

    From your link:

    “You believe that everyone should be able to have the best life they can,

    because they only get one chance to make the most of it, and to enjoy it.”

    This – “because they only get one chance to make the most of it” – to me seems to be crucial to your stance. Although perhaps to you, it seems so self-evident that it doesn’t occur to you to question it.

    Once one settles the issue of whether this one lifetime is all there is to one’s life, everything else seems easy enough.

    Holding a definitive stance on whether this one lifetime is all there is to one’s life, defines a number of things in one’s life, some in a mutually exclusive manner.
    Ie. holding that this one lifetime is all there is to one’s life, there is a number of things one will definitely not pursue, but which one would pursue if one believed in rebirth/rencarnation, and vice versa.
    Belief in rebirth/rencarnation tends to make it pointless to pursue as worthy in and of themselves material pleasures, relationships and all the other things that people usually do.

    Has there ever been a point in your life where you doubted whether this one lifetime is all there is to one’s life?
    If yes, how did you arrive at the decision in favor of a one-lifetime conception?

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