The COVID-19 pandemic has raised a hornet’s nest of issues, ranging from public health matters to politics to the question of what the longer-term societal consequences of this might be. Some of these issues are philosophical, so I’m going to devote the next few podcasts to a few of them. Many right now are engaged in prognostication—speculating about how this might change our society in any number of ways, including our ways of thinking. Prognostication is always highly uncertain, but before going there the first issue I want to talk about is adversity—personal adversity but also socially shared adversity. Some are comparing what’s happening today to some historical precedents; “the millennial generation’s World War II” is a phrase I’ve heard numerous times now. Let’s not exaggerate; this isn’t World War II, or the great depression, or anything like those. What it is, is a socially shared experience of adversity on a larger scale than we’ve seen in a while. There’s a mood of despondency out there—so let’s talk about adversity.
The worst thing you can say to someone who is experiencing serious adversity is anything trite: “Everything happens for a reason,” “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” and so on. Our culture serves up a lot of utter nonsense on the topic of adversity. Everything happens for a reason, does it? What is the reason for the holocaust? What is the reason why someone’s child dies? No, many things happen for no reason whatsoever; they just happen, and we’re left having to pick up the pieces. Suffering can destroy you; adversity can break your spirit and leave you a diminished version of yourself. This happens, so let’s not be Pollyannas about this. There is, however, another side to this. The governor of New York said something a few days ago that impressed me—not the kind of thing you would usually hear from a politician. He was urging people, and without being glib, to try to find some silver lining in this dark cloud; as an example he mentioned that he had been having long, meaningful conversations with members of his family that he normally would not, likely because he didn’t have the time. Think of the many things we often say we’d love to do but can’t because we don’t have time. The books we’d like to read, the conversations we’d like to have, some pastime we wish we had more time to pursue. With so many out of work for a while, we have time for some of those things, and the governor was urging people to do some of these. Many never get a break from the rat race. We have one now.
Another popular saying has it that “Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger.” This can also be said in a trifling way, but its original author certainly didn’t. The author was Nietzsche, from his book Twilight of the Idols. It’s one of his most quoted lines, now what did he mean by it? This man knew adversity in many forms and knew it well. What he meant is probably a few things, but what I take him to mean is that where there is serious adversity there is also the possibility of creating meaning. Suffering forces a decision. When you’re faced with suffering, you need to do something—take action, change something, or in some way make a decision which you might not make under more normal circumstances, and one that in the long run might lead you to become a more interesting person or to acquire some inner depth. Facing up to your mortality “concentrates the mind wonderfully,” as Samuel Johnson said, making a similar observation. I’m reminded as well of an amusing scene in the movie Barfly where a poet played by Mickey Rourke drives his car into the back of a car in which a young couple is carrying on while waiting at a red light. “What they need,” Rourke says in his inimitable way, “is a little taste of death.” He doesn’t explain why, but his point was probably similar to Nietzsche’s: they need to get some profundity, to really think about life and how they’re living it, maybe change their ways. You can become “stronger” this way, Nietzsche thought, and I do think he had a point—although the other side of this is that you can also be destroyed by it.
Another writer I want to quote is the great nineteenth-century Russian novelist Dostoyevsky. In his last and greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, he writes this about grief: “a mysterious process gradually transforms an old grief into a quiet happiness; seething youth is replaced by gentle and serene old age. Every day I bless the rising sun and my heart sings to it as it did before; but now I love the sunset even more, and its long, slanting rays bring back to me quiet, touching, tender memories, dear faces, and images from my long and blessed life.” What Dostoyevsky was speaking of here is a kind of deepening of ourselves which can follow, probably very slowly, upon painful experience, and a deepening that’s very difficult to distinguish from happiness. Let me quote another writer, Albert Camus: “One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness.” This is counterintuitive: we would think an encounter with the absurdity of life would lead to unhappiness, but for Camus it’s not so. What each of them is saying, each in a different way, is that experiences of adversity and indeed profound suffering can be of value because of what they can sometimes lead to, maybe years or decades later, and again if it doesn’t destroy us. Another existentialist, Karl Jaspers, spoke of what he called “limit situations” as simultaneously unpleasant and potentially highly valuable experiences in which I am brought up against something that stands against me and defies my will, an encounter with my limits which again include adversity. No one enjoys this, and it’s foolish to seek it out. You also don’t need to seek it out; it comes to you—to all of us, sooner or later and in some measure and form or other. Its value is again that it forces you to do something, and it’s not obvious what: maybe escape the rut you might be in, maybe get out of the rat race or whatever bad situation you might be in. The situation itself doesn’t dictate the decision, only that one needs to be made, and by you. No one can tell you what to do. You need to use your own inner resources—which may not be very well developed, so you need to develop them.
Personal adversity can be very difficult to keep in perspective and can easily become an idée fixe, the only thing in your world. Here I’m going to refer to one last writer, this one a musician whose recent death left me and a lot of people around the world terribly saddened: Neil Peart of my favorite rock band, Rush. Over twenty years ago, Neil’s only daughter died in a car accident. Within a year his wife died as well. As difficult as it must have been, he later wrote about this with an insight that was typical of him. To cope, he got on his motorcycle and went riding, and riding and riding, wandering more or less aimlessly throughout North America and racking up thousands of miles, alone. He wrote of that journey that riding through mountains and surrounding himself with nature brought home to him the fact that whatever anguish he was going through was dwarfed by nature itself and that he himself was not the center of the universe. There are larger things than one’s own suffering, no matter how acute it can be. To cope with adversity, we need to hold it in perspective, to think about it in a certain way, not just feel our way through it but think our way through it, and part of this is reminding ourselves that there are other things in the world than what you’re going through. Everyone in the world is going through something, is up against something. Scottish author Ian Maclaren said: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” This is probably true. It’s not the same battle that you may be going through, but their own, and if they’re not going through it today they will someday.
When adversity is shared by people on a societal scale, it can bring home to us how petty many of our everyday social dramas really are, in our politics for example. Everyone is talking about how divided our societies have become, along lines of race, gender, culture, and identity. In any pluralistic society these divisions are real, but they’re also well within the means of a democracy to deal with. In many countries today they’re routinely blown out of proportion by politicians, academics, and news organizations that often trade on these divisions and profit by them, stoking the flames when they ought to be keeping them in perspective and showing how small conflicts can remain small and can also be resolved when there’s a modicum of good will. When the good will is gone, we have a problem, and there’s nothing like a taste of real adversity to get things into perspective. Much of our politics is petty and aggressively self-seeking, and if there’s any kind of silver lining to be seen at this time it may be that some of us might come to see just how small-minded much of our politics has become.
The Roman stoics took the view that “learning how to live takes a whole life,” as Seneca expressed it; “there is nothing which is harder to learn.” The stoics had a sense of the difficulty of life, that living well requires a certain hardness. The title of Nietzsche’s often-quoted aphorism is “From the Military School of Life.” He wasn’t exactly a stoic, but Nietzsche and the stoics both understood that adversity is a teacher. Too much of it can destroy you, but a moderate dose can resemble nothing so much as a live vaccine which, if administered in the right quantity, can create a resiliency that can last a lifetime.
The antidote to pettiness and the wrong kind of self-focus is adversity, whether it’s on a personal or societal scale. Let’s not be comparing what’s happening with the depression of the 1930s or World War II; it’s neither, but like both of them we can hope that in time we might look back on this as a time when something good came from it.