The Role of Adversity

Jack Ryser

As I write this, there is a popular song by Kelly Clarkson that says “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” We have all heard this many times in our life. I have often joked that I would happily accept being weak to have avoided the adversity placed in my path. Many people who are reading this are at this moment struggling with intense adversity. They may have been victims of crime, felt tremendous despair at the death of a partner or child, and many other serious challenges. When my wife died people would often say things like “you will love again,” or “she’s in a better place.” People would tell me that life will get better, it may take a few years, but it will get better. A few years! All I knew is that I found every moment of every day to be painful without any relief. Just making it from the morning to the evening felt nearly impossible. I couldn’t even comprehend a few years.

But here I am fifteen years later…a survivor.

I spoke at Kameo’s funeral. I really felt that I knew her better than anyone else and a tribute to her without my insight would be incomplete. It was a wonderful funeral. There were many moments shared by those who loved my wife, and gave her honor for the life that she lived. Imagine being at a funeral where the person who had died was only thirty-five years old, and had left a husband and three young girls under the age of eight. That feels so sad. That was the situation I was in and I could feel the heaviness of sadness in the room. My girls, all wearing beautifully matching dresses, and I sat on the front row. I was the final speaker. When I walked up to the podium I knew that either people would walk away from this funeral feeling inspired, or they would leave feeling awful, encumbered with sadness. I wanted them to feel inspired.

To ease the tension I started with a fairly inappropriate joke. My wife had said to me a couple weeks before she died that she looked forward to being in the hereafter because she was going to get bigger “boobs.” I then said “that gives us both a reason to look forward to heaven.” The congregation felt a tremendous relief as the moment was met with laughter rather than tears.

I then told a story that will forever be with me. The month before Kameo died we had taken my oldest two daughters, Allie and Jackie, to Arches National Park in Moab, Utah. We had rented an RV and traveled there and planned on doing quite a bit of hiking. It is a stunning place filled with incredible beauty. We hiked through caverns and even crawled through tight spaces to enjoy the Park. Kameo had lupus, a chronic disease that can impact almost any part of a body. She had serious arthritis and would often experience lupus flares. This would cause her to get a high fever, her joints would get very painful making it difficult to walk, and she would be exhausted. The only thing she could do was take some meds and sleep for the day. Coming into this vacation we knew that it could be difficult for her but she had had one of the best years of health since we were married. She felt that she could manage this trip.

On our final day in Arches we decided to climb to Delicate Arch. This is a fairly long hike and my girls were really young. I was worried that they may not make it. The morning before the hike Kameo started feeling badly. Her joints were starting to hurt and she started getting a fever. It was a lupus flare. If we were not careful a lupus flare could get bad enough to need to go to the hospital. We decided that Kameo would be okay but needed to just sleep in the RV while I took the girls to Delicate Arch.

After hours of hiking and seeing one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen, we started back down the mountain. We were about a half mile from the finish line when just ahead of us we saw Kameo coming up the mountain. When we reached her I asked her what she was doing. Her response was simply “I just really needed to be with you guys.” Even today fifteen years later, I see these moments as clearly as I ever have. It wasn’t even that eventful of a moment. But the feeling of love I felt just those few weeks before her death would forever be with me. She just really needed to be with us.

What is the role of Adversity? It isn’t to make us stronger, as many people believe. It does make us stronger, but that is not its primary purpose. I believe adversity is given to us to help us to be empathetic. It eliminates our ego quickly and the foundation of ego is selfishness. Adversity allows us to be humble and feel emotions, understand other people, and direct our efforts to others rather than ourselves, if we choose to respond that way. I am convinced that if there were no adversity, our lives would be self-absorbed, there would be no empathy, no love, and ultimately no happiness. This being the case, adversity brings us happiness.

Sure doesn’t feel like it though, does it?

Ram Dass is a great spiritual leader in the West though his teachings are very much Eastern philosophies. He was closely associated with Timothy Leary and was fired from Harvard in the late sixties. He went on a spiritual quest for many years and truly became a humble servant of mankind and of God. One of my dearest friends and his wife met him for the first time at his home in Hawaii. Ram Dass had a stroke in the nineties which left him incapacitated on one side and wheelchair bound for life. In this meeting my friend asked him how he has done since his stroke. The response was enlightening. Ram Dass hugged himself with his right side overlapping his stagnant left side, while repeating the words, “I love my stroke, I love my stroke.”

For many of us this would seem like a disingenuous declaration, but to a man who had committed himself to a spiritual understanding of life, it should be seen as enlightened understanding of adversity. He had embraced his stroke as an adversity that gave him even more of an ability to love others at a greater level than he previously had been able. The humility provided by the stroke gave him an even deeper empathy and understanding of other people. I believe he understands that his stroke brought greater happiness to his life that ultimately he would not have had without it.

This seems difficult to believe for all of us. How could a person be grateful for such adversity? When you breakdown the actual results of adversity you get a glimpse of how it can impact a life for good. Certainly the immobilization of his body must have been very difficult to accept, certainly the recovery was enormous. But when all is said and done, that became an acceptable trade-off for a greater understanding of mankind, a deeper empathy for others’ challenges, and ultimately a closer connection to God. Ram Dass loves his stroke.

I have to be honest with you; I am not at that level of understanding yet. However, I do expect that someday I will be, as I face each challenge placed before me with a greater understanding of its role in eliminating my ego and my selfishness, as well as put me into a better position to develop lasting joy. Isn’t that a worthy goal for all of us?

Today is a beautiful April Spring day in South Jordan, Utah. The birds are singing, the sky is perfectly blue, and I left a very challenging funeral just a few hours ago. A young man had taken his own life. A man I knew fairly well and whose family is as close to me as my own family. I saw the weeping of a broken-hearted mother, the painful spoken words of friends, and despair by all that was heavy and palpable. But as the meeting progressed I saw an interesting development. People were joined together in sharing story after story of the goodness of this young man. You could feel the emphasis shift from a self-inflicted death to a life lived that brought joy to many other people. There were smiles on peoples’ faces as they remembered long-forgotten memories of there loved one. It was beautiful to see that even in this most tragic of situations it was bringing members of his family closer together, more dependent on each other, more loving to one another. The foundation to building a stronger, more loving and empathetic family had begun already.

It is important to me that we don’t minimize the pain and grief associated with such adversity. Such pain really can’t be understood by most of us. It feels completely devastating. With that said, if a person chooses to see such adversity and its role in developing them, they will come out of this devastating time a kinder, more loving, and yes, stronger person than before. That person will one day enjoy a deeper understanding of life and feel tremendous joy.

One last thought, I have said several times throughout this book that these thoughts that I have shared are based on my experiences and how following the principles have dramatically changed my life and brought me unbridled happiness, despite significant adversity. I believe the principle that adversity brings happiness is true for everyone, but not everyone is ready to understand this. If this sounds truly unrealistic to you, it is simply not the right time yet. Keep an open mind. Be aware of how adversity affects yourself and those around you, and apply what you learn. You will be shocked at how this new paradigm can change your world.