I have been struck in recent years, even prior to the Covid experience, how our cultural sensibilities have been taking shape regarding facing adversity of virtually any type and at any level. Books such as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind (2018) provided warning signs that we are getting weaker and don’t even realize it. I can no longer count the times I have read or heard some version of the quote, “Hard times make strong people, strong people make easy times, easy times make weak people, and weak people make hard times.” Today, it is difficult to get through a day without encountering a podcast, meme, social media post, or op-ed column somewhere in the country either modeling or affirming a lack of personal, psychological, and emotional resilience or mocking and criticizing it. And I see no end to the kind of social media self-indulgence that turns minor inconveniences into existential crises. It seems to me that the surfacing of our attitudes and beliefs about such things as adversity and resilience belies a cultural dynamic of conflict we are experiencing both collectively and individually in terms of our values and sensibilities. These in turn impact how we view life and react to the circumstances and realities of it. We need wisdom to see and understand what is happening to us and around us as well as to guide us in the way we should go regarding these things. And from a faith perspective, I turn to the Bible.
The Bible employs multiple genres including narratives, prophecy, the Gospels, letters, and wisdom literature. The wisdom literature or poetical books of the Bible such as Job, Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes provide insight and perspective that when sought, considered, internalized, and applied lead to skillful living. These Old Testament books have been considered valuable to many over the centuries, and they have found their way into our own literature, music, and film. It has been said that Alfred Lord Tennyson, Queen Victoria’s Poet Laureate, considered the Book of Job his favorite poetical work. But there is also a gem of wisdom literature found in the New Testament. The book of James has a ring to it in parts that mimic the poetry of the Old Testament. One such passage in that short letter to early Christians is among the first verses I memorized as a new convert in my teens. It is a verse that speaks volumes regarding our outlook on life and its often challenging circumstances. This outlook is a timely one given our cultural disposition toward ease, comfort, and convenience, as well as adversity, hardship, and trials.
In James 1:2–3 we read, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” I do not think I could construct a more counter-cultural outlook on adversity if I tried. Who in their right mind would consider adversity a joy? But in this is true and abiding wisdom. In this wisdom is a perspective that, if taken up, will change our lives and make us stronger, more resilient, more grateful, and more joyful because it will make us better. This wisdom calls us not only to see adversity differently but to see it as for our betterment.
Considering this wisdom and whether to take it up or not requires some honest reflection. Do we want this? Do we value perseverance? Do we want to be mature and complete? Or would we rather opt for ease? And if we think this wisdom is foolish, consider the alternatives. What happens to us physically, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, or even professionally in the absence of adversity? I read once in a biography of George Washington, whose wife, Martha, had two children by her first husband, that he doted over his stepchildren. He indulged them, sheltered them, and gave them everything he never had in life as a child except the one thing he did have that they needed: adversity. That’s worth thinking about.
This article first appeared in-print in the Bucks County Courier Times in April 2023