We humans thrive in adversity, but flounder in prosperity. Amazingly, this basic truth has never been a major focus in human intelligence. Many of us today remain almost robotically ignorant of it, avoiding adversity whenever we can, while fixating our lives on seeking the easy life.
The great British historian Arnold Toynbee wrote a voluminous study of human history, finding that all 27 civilizations so far were founded in adversity; the 23 that have disappeared did so after they achieved prosperity.
The rise of the Roman Empire thrived on challenges in its expansion and innovations, then marked its fall by inner turmoil and self-indulgence.
It’s not just civilizations; this adversity/prosperity blindness happens to all of us to some degree, perhaps highlighted by millions of lottery players seeking the big win.
The reality? Studies show lottery winners are more likely to declare bankruptcy within three to five years than the average American. Nor does winning make you happier; in the words of one researcher, “Winning the lottery will not solve all of life's problems. In fact, many people's lives became notably worse after they hit.”
I believe this is our fundamental human problem: we often blind ourselves to where our “free” will ends and Nature’s superior will begins.
No matter what we may believe about God, Nature is truly a wondrous and complex force. It has laws like gravity that control us. Nature maps out the growth process for all living species, who integrate with life and change, or otherwise become extinct.
Human growth has its own natural intricacies. A baby spends nine months in utero, uniting mother and child. This birthing process is culminated in a very adverse experience for the mother—my wife says, “you wouldn’t have another baby if you could remember the pain”—which provides a powerful mother-child bond, essential to prepare both for the 18 years of child development.
So Nature begins human life by connecting adversity to great joy--birth. Then, if we think of our most important experiences we had growing up, I think we’d find those times when we met tough challenges or overcame difficult obstacles, often leading to some new and encouraging realization about ourselves.
If we can agree that Nature has made adversity a critical part of our development, our next question should be—why? And the answer: Because we learn that adversity is critical to effectively prepare us for whatever we are setting out to do.
Schools are designed to prepare youth for life. How well they do it largely depends upon how rigorous they are. Our service academies develop officers to lead our armed forces. We greatly respect graduates because we know they survived and mastered a highly challenging four-year program.
We may not like Nietzsche’s observation—“What does not kill you makes you stronger”—but we know it speaks to a truth about adversity.
So it seems clear to me—Nature begins life by connecting adversity to deep joy, fulfilling a purpose—in this case, birth. Whatever we set out to do, prosperity—or lack of it—is simply a byproduct.
I learned long ago that outcomes--like prosperity--were not most important. Most important were the experiences of doing our true best—of giving our all to our purposes in life. We may have ended up disappointed, but we experienced a much deeper serenity of fulfillment.
This is the beauty of Nature’s design. We are not expected to solve the world’s problems; we are only expected to do our best. That best is what the world needs from us.
Nature entrusts we humans to be the world’s caretakers. The more we honor that responsibility — understanding we will thrive in adversity, in facing challenges — the more nature has wired us to be rewarded. I think that wiring culminates in our conscience, what I call “the compass of our destiny.”
So to live a meaningful and fulfilling life, embrace adversity as an integral part of it, do our best and Nature will reward us.