The Gift of Adversity

Sermon for Rosh HaShanah - Day 2
September 26, 2014 - 5775
Temple Beth El of Boca Raton
By Rabbi Greg Weisman


In 1982, the American public faced a reality that scared parents all over the country. In the suburbs of Chicago, a small handful of bottles of Tylenol were poisoned, and over a very short period of time, several people, including teenagers, died as a result. The community was terrified, local police went through neighborhoods warning of the danger, and the entire medicinal drug production process was changed to further ensure the safety and integrity of our nations’ medicines. With Halloween a short time later, parents’ concern for their children’s safety, in light of this tragedy, prompted a new annual ritual: the thorough inspection of all of the loot their kids brought home from trick or treating. As a child of that decade, I can remember watching public service announcements in elementary school about the dangers of opened candy packages, homemade cookies and brownies, and other “unsealed” food that we might come home with, and to check with my parents before eating anything out of my little plastic pumpkin. Thirty years later, as a response to that tragedy, we have a much greater level of trust in the integrity of our nation’s pharmaceuticals and, with the plentiful options of pre-packaged and branded Halloween candy (already available, even though Halloween is over a month away), “checking the candy” may be nothing more than a ruse for parents to schnor a bit of their kids’ goodies. It was a tragedy what happened to those children and their families, but as a result, our nation is at least in some ways safer than it was before. 

As a result of the panic of 1982, there have been two distinct outcomes. First, in general we are a safer country; we protect our medicines and other products in ways not considered in the past. But the unique details of the Tylenol and Halloween scares, that children and young adults were falling victim and that their parents became the necessary interveners who sought to protect them, may also have started a side-effect that no one could have predicted, but has widely been noted as an increasing concern: helicopter parenting. For those unfamiliar, helicopter parents are those that hover (like a helicopter) over their children, from youth to adolescence to emerging adulthood, ready to ward off any difficulty, any disappointment, and solve every problem for their child, if possible even before it arises.

Anecdotally, there are stories about parents completing their child’s coursework in high school, calling college professors to advocate on behalf of their children, of students increasingly incapable of processing the frustration of a less than desired or expected outcome in a classroom, on a ball field, or in any other venue in which student’s performance is assessed. There are even stories of parents accompanying their children on job interviews! Researchers have noted that these experiences are unique to those young adults born in the 1980s, 1990s, and as they are now emerging teenagers, those born in the 2000s as well. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the panic that the events of the fall of 1982 set all this motion. What became a desire to protect children from an imminent threat became a desire to protect from all threats, then all risks, and eventually, any frustration, any disappointment, any setback…any adversity that might befall someone learning their way in the adult world.

Look, I get it. On its face, being a very involved parent, one who is concerned with each facet of your child’s life, doesn’t seem terrible. As the father of a young child, I have stressed over diaper changes, how much food she’s eaten…the little mundane details that I can’t imagine my mom wondering about me. But we live in a dangerous world. Parents stopped letting their kids go to the park alone because there are predators out there. Parents involve themselves in the problems their teenagers face because, hey, they were teenagers too, and know what it’s like and how to navigate that difficult time. Why wouldn’t a parent want to guide their emerging adult child through college, helping them be as successful as possible? As parents, we have been through what our children are facing…why not just show them the way?

It’s because trying to avoid all adversity is simply bad for us. It doesn’t allow us to develop coping mechanisms, problem-solving skills, or perseverance. It’s one thing to be prudent, to buckle your seatbelt, brush your teeth, look both ways before crossing the street, and to teach and demand that your children do the same. But removing all adversity, all frustration from our children’s- or anyone-s lives? It’s not possible, and it’s not advisable because it’s not possible. Our world is full of pain, of sadness, of disappointment. Think about our world today. Africa, Ukraine, Syria and Iraq, Israel and Palestine, Ferguson, Missouri, all places where terrible things have recently or to today are happening. Here in the relative paradise of Boca Raton and its neighboring communities, it’s not nearly as dire, but we never know when tragedy, or disappointment, or pain, or sadness, might strike.

We wish that we could alleviate all pain and suffering, for ourselves and for those all over the world. But it doesn’t work that way. Frustration, setback, tragedy, pain, death, disease are a part of our world. Each of us is confronted on a daily basis by things we wish simply ceased to be. Most of us, living in the US, in south Florida, in and around Boca Raton, are of the privileged of the privileged of the 7 billion people who inhabit our earth. We know that the issues many are facing are much, much, much more dire and depressing than the setbacks we face. And while we might learn to laugh a bit at the asinine things that frustrate us, labeling them “first world problems,” many of us sadly have had to face sickness, divorce, accident or injury, unemployment and financial hardship, the disappointment of a failed relationship, being passed over for a great job opportunity or admission into the school of our choice.

Facing adversity is part of the human condition. With life comes the certainty of death, with pleasure comes the recognition that pain is a possibility. And while all living creatures are subject to the natural realities, as evolved humans, we have created for ourselves the possibility of much more complex emotional and physical suffering. Jealousy. Pride. Manipulation. Belittlement. These experiences are uniquely human and occur only as a result of the behaviors we do to each other. So as we walk the earth, as we live our lives and interact with friends, family, coworkers, and complete strangers, the potential for adversity is all around us.

Albert Einstein faced an incredibly difficult childhood. He did not speak until he was three years old. When he finally did open his mouth, he did so sparingly. His elementary school teachers thought he was lazy, that he was disconnected from his classroom conversation, and he would never making anything of himself. His head was always in clouds, they said. Boy, were they right! They saw and ignored a young man who seemed detached from the world around him, and all that did was give him the chance to develop the most sophisticated understanding of our universe that our world had ever known. Imagine what might have happened if his parents intervened, forcing him to be more involved in class, or forcing his teachers to occupy and entertain him more!

That’s the problem with helicopter parenting: we never know which experiences are going to be the ones that cripple us for life, and which become the inspiration for a lifetime of great work. We will be confronted with adversity, no matter how much we try to avoid it; it is part of the human condition. What really matters is not how well we avoid it, but what we do with it once we experience it.

We could let the pain of adversity consume us, depress us, overwhelm us. We might obsess over the circumstances, try to figure out what caused this, find someone to blame. But doing so brings us no closer to relief or resolution. Rather, we ought seek out ways to grow from the experience. Facing any adversity, whether it is mundane or it is tragic, is not something we ask for. But when it happens, it presents us with an opportunity. For some, the depth of the tragedy is simply too deep for any good to come of it. But for most, the frustrations, the setbacks, the disappointments we face in our lives are not so great that we cannot overcome them. With grit, with a commitment to learning from our experiences, and with a desire to grow personally, we can turn these experiences with adversity into opportunities for growth. In fact many would argue that is only through disappointment, through adversity, that true personal growth can occur.

Entering the new year and the Days of Awe, personal growth should be on the forefront of our minds. We have all made mistakes over the past year, we are all looking to improve ourselves in the year to come. One way to improve our year would seem to be avoiding the pains that have stricken us in the past. But perhaps, as opposed to avoiding adversity, we should embrace its reality and spend our energies not avoiding all adversity, but seeking ways to channel the angst and struggle into growth and learning.

As we live our lives, as we raise our children, we will be faced with adversity, big and small. We do what we can to prevent catastrophe, and teach our loved ones the values of safety and security. But at a certain point, it behooves us to confront adversity, not avoid it. It strengthens us, teaches us, emboldens us. It makes us better friends and loved ones, equipping us with empathy and a deeper appreciation for the good that supportive, caring people can have during our toughest times. In other words, experiencing adversity, confronting it, and overcoming it makes us better people. It makes us wiser, more sensitive, and better prepared to face the next train coming, be it for good or for bad.

After the darkest moment of human history, Victor Frankl, the noted psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, was able to articulate how he grew, what he learned from the experience. He noted the complete and utter lack of any personal agency that those in the camps had; they had no control of even life’s most basic functions: sleeping, eating, going to the bathroom. In those situations, he suggested, when you have absolutely no control over your own circumstances, what remains is your ability to control your reaction. Get angry. Lash out. Recede into submission. Seek moments of personal agency, like those in the camps who would use their weekly ration of butter to make candles for Chanukah. But when you’re through, when you have survived those moments of complete oppression, you will know that there was a part of you that you were able to hold on to, a part of you that continued to grow and mature, a part of you that will form the foundation of the new you, the survivor.

Fortunately, few of us have ever or will ever, God forbid, experience oppression like the Holocaust. But what is amazing about Frankl’s teaching is that he was able to see some positive outcomes out of those terrible conditions, find some way in which he and his fellow survivors were enhanced by their experience, as awful as they were. How much the more should it be true for us who live lives that, while faced with uphill battles, never come anywhere close to the pain and anguish he faced.

In words immortalized by Gen. Douglas MacArthur in “A Prayer for My Son,” we are told of his desired path of upbringing: “Rear him, I pray, not in the paths of ease and comfort, but under the stress and spur of difficulties and challenges. Here let him learn to stand up in the storm, here let him learn compassion for those who fail.” MacArthur’s simple statement is a recognition that it is possible to try to avoid stress, that some are privileged enough to make their way through life in comfort and luxury. But to him, that path does not make for a well-adjusted, well-dispositioned person. The trials and travails of life, experienced both in youth and in adulthood, are not only a normal reality of the human condition, but in fact enhance our ability to survive and thrive. Desiring perfection in all experiences: no mistakes, no setbacks, no frustrations, can become all-consuming. If all we do is focus on preventing any adversity, our vision narrows on the pitfalls and misses the beauty and the good that is around us. We become paralyzed by our desire to avoid adversity, and it prevents us from seeing and doing the good in our lives. Rather, as MacArthur suggests, when we expose ourselves to frustration, when we are forced to overcome the spur and stresses that life throws at us, not only do we learn how to cope, to stand up in the storm, but we develop a deeper sense of compassion and empathy for those who have it much worse than we do. Our Torah teaches us not to oppress the stranger, for we know what it is like to be a stranger, having been strangers in Egypt.  While that was true for the generation of our ancestors who went forth from Egypt, we today were not, in fact, strangers in Egypt? So how can we fulfill that command? By recognizing that our adverse experiences add meaning to our lives, by learning from those experiences, and enhancing our understanding and compassion for those around us as a result.

Shakespeare wrote, “Sweet are the uses of adversity…and…our life…finds…good in every thing.”  As we we enter into the new year, we know that as much as we hope and pray for joy and happiness, we each undoubtedly will encounter adversity in 5775. As we gather today in celebration, we pray that in this new year, we will have the ability to turn those adversities into opportunities, to overcome disappointment with perseverance. As we wish each other L’Shana Tova, to a good year, may Shakespeare’s words come true.  May the adversities of years gone by blossom into personal improvements and spiritual wholeness, of growth, of blessings, delights, and peace. Amen.