<i>The Gift of Adversity</i>: A Book Review

We are offered a memoir and a bundle of morality tales that follow, first, the arc of Dr. Norman Rosenthal's life, then vignettes of his heroes, and conclude with his pondering about farewells.
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Imagine going on a lengthy walk with a wise man. You stride along with a person who over more than six decades has witnessed and experienced a range of trauma, disappointment, betrayal, loss and grief, yet has emerged with the capacity to speak about adversity and its value, through the gift of storytelling. Each day, as you proceed together, a short tale unfolds that portrays with clarity and warmth our human foibles and errors, and sometimes our inhumanity, yet without an ending tinged with demoralization or bitterness. The wise man's stories aim to guide you, to help you find reconciliation with the flawed nature of -- if not forgiveness with -- the ephemera that is our life, to see a way of being that is not drained by anger, regret, remorse, shame, or revenge during our time on earth, during which no one is spared adversity.

Throughout 52 stories, a full deck, Dr. Norman Rosenthal is that wise man, and this book is that walk. We are offered a memoir and a bundle of morality tales that follow, first, the arc of his life, then vignettes of his heroes and conclude with his pondering about farewells. The good doctor begins with stories of his youth, and then he advances to adulthood; as his life matures so do the stories he tells. The early ones are childlike (the section on "youth") but then become more complex as they are enriched and leavened by the everyday, egregious ways in which we encounter adversity (the section on "adulthood"). Not one of us is spared limitations, failure, illness, trauma, or loss -- not if we try, not if we feel. Rosenthal finds the silver lining, "the sweet uses of adversity," again and again, to support, comfort and encourage his reader not only to be resilient but to defeat adversity by robbing it of its potential toxicity.

Dr. Rosenthal has a distinguished career as a physician and a writer. Born of Jewish, second generation, Lithuanian immigrants in Johannesburg, South Africa, he migrates with wife and young son to New York after medical school to take a psychiatric residency at Columbia and The New York State Psychiatric Institute at the dawn of the end of Apartheid. Over the years, he has worked at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), headed a clinical trials company and treated countless patients with serious mental illnesses.

His psychiatric achievements are diverse and notable and include describing and developing light treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a very common condition that drains people of energy and industry in the dark seasons of the year; the use of Botox for mood improvement, which illustrates how the body -- in this case, facial muscles and expressions -- affects the mind (a somatopsychic approach to medicine unlike the more typical psychosomatic views held in the Western world); research on the use of St. John's Wort for mild to moderate depression; and how Transcendental Meditation (TM) can not only add calm, kindness and perspective to those fortunate to not have a mental illness but to serve, as well, a therapeutic role in conditions as troubling as bipolar disorder, the addictions and PTSD.

His books include Transcendence (about meditation and a NYT bestseller), Winter Blues (about SAD), and The Emotional Revolution. And now we have The Gift of Adversity. All are written for the general public in language and style that is eminently readable.

Each chapter of this book, each moral lesson, begins with a quote (or two) from other wise men and women throughout history and ends with his brief summary of what might be learned. The selection of quotes is wonderful and I thought, with his stories speaking for themselves, was sufficient so as to spare the reader a synopsis of its meaning. The stories themselves are rich and explore, among many other subjects, family, relationships, immigration, courage, work, history, education, service, science, teaching, research, psychopathy and discovery.

His own problems with depressed mood, especially in winter months, were instrumental to his discovery of SAD. His father's wartime-acquired PTSD opened his mind to understanding trauma, and how to make a life despite its residua. His near fatal attack as a young man by hoodlums (panga gangs) in Johannesburg was a lesson in danger and safety. Leaving home for residency and a career abroad taught him about family dislocation and renewal. Getting ousted from the NIMH after 20 years of success taught him about indifference, power and rebuilding.

His "heroes," at least those he writes about, are: his uncle, who suffered a mortal wound in North Africa in WWII but did not die for days, during which he showed great grace and generosity; a cousin and childhood friend who was arrested by the Pretoria police in 1969 and tortured for weeks for his liberal ideas and friends, and who as an adult founded and has led a charity for victims of torture; his mother, who in her mid-70s had the presence of mind to deter burglars known for not leaving their prey alive; and Viktor Frankl, whose account of surviving Nazi concentration camps (Man's Search for Meaning and other works) has served as a source for inspiration and meaning that never grows old.

His "farewells" are about death and dying, the loss of innocence, and living on after death. These are melancholic and sweet stories that are as familiar as they are profound.

Dr. Rosenthal pays particular homage to his father and uncle (the war hero mentioned above and to whom the book is dedicated). He uses memoir to make personal many of the moral lessons of the book's first two sections. His credentials, so to speak, are being a Jew (history's nomad, often its outcast) who lived with Apartheid, who grew up in the shadow of the Nazi Holocaust, who left his homeland, and whose career as a psychiatrist and researcher gave him the privilege of knowing and helping others manage madness and the consequences of human cruelty. But it is his gift for storytelling and his vault of experience, broad and deep, which allows him to look into the mirror of his own life -- and that of his readers -- and find what can be learned or appreciated, and discover how strength can be harvested from a lifetime's crop of adversity.

Dr. Sederer's new book for families who have a member with a mental illness, The Family Guide to Mental Health Care, published by WW Norton, is now available, as is his even newer book (with Jay Neugeboren and Michael Friedman), The Diagnostic Manual of Mishegas.

The opinions expressed here are solely mine as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.

For more by Lloyd I. Sederer, M.D., click here.

For more book reviews, click here.

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