Adversity: The Primer for Resilience

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

Marcus Aurelius

One of my favorites among the many definitions of resilience is – Positive adaptation to perceived adversity. What Marcus Aurelius is pointing out is that adaptation is learned behavior; true for individuals, communities and nations. We learn to cope by coping; we learn to adapt by adapting to those things we cannot change. If we never have to cross barriers we will never learn to hurdle them. We need to fall if we are to learn how to get back up. In that sense, adversity becomes the primer for resilience. Just as a child’s primer started us on our journey to literacy, adversity starts us on our journey to resilience.

Too often, our politicians act as if they prevent anything bad from happening to anyone. But by trying to prevent bad things from happening to people, communities, or our nation, we are actually preventing people, communities and our nation from learning to cope and adapt.

One of the worst examples of this is our use of the Precautionary Principle. This unprincipled Principle states that no action – no matter how beneficial – should be taken unless it can be shown to be absolutely safe. Aside from the impossibility of proving a negative (“no bad thing will happen if I do X”), it turns risk management on its head (tip of the hat to the Risk-Monger). Instead of managing risk, the default position of our governmental officials and politicians is to skulk away from any decision with any possible downside in the name of “protecting us.”

Ultimately, such efforts are doomed to failure. Bad things will happen. The more little “bads” we’re able to prevent, the more severe the big “bads” will be. Because not only will we not have learned to adapt to adversity, but we will most likely engage in ever more risky behavior – leading to Minsky Moments.

As Helen Keller wrote:

Security is mostly a superstition
It does not exist in nature
Nor do the children of men
As a whole experience it.
Avoiding danger is no safer
In the long run than outright exposure.

To her,

Life is either a daring adventure
Or it is nothing.
To keep our faces toward change and
Behave like free spirits
In the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.

We should embrace adversity as a part of living, and learn the lessons it teaches us about coping and adapting; about becoming more resilient.

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