Adversity, and its Importance

Friederich Nietzsche tells us that “whatever does not kill us makes us stronger.” It’s a bold statement. Yet, though today the culture often seems to reward those who wallow in self-pity (not least of all through litigation for emotional upsets and “offense”), adversity has played a crucial part in the spiritual, intellectual, and creative development of cultures and individuals. It will continue to do so. And we should welcome that.

We need not fetishize adversity, of course, but we should understand it’s value and place in life. David Byrne, singer of the band Talking Heads, published an article about New York and its takeover by the wealthy in Britain’s Guardian newspaper last week. “Some folks believe that hardship breeds artistic creativity,” he said. He went on:

I don’t buy it. One can put up with poverty for a while when one is young, but it will inevitably wear a person down. I don’t romanticize the bad old days. I find the drop in crime over the last couple of decades refreshing. Manhattan and Brooklyn, those vibrant playgrounds, are way less scary than they were when I moved here. I have no illusions that there was a connection between that city on its knees and a flourishing of creativity; I don’t believe that crime, danger and poverty make for good art. That’s bullshit. But I also don’t believe that the drop in crime means the city has to be more exclusively for those who have money. Increases in the quality of life should be for all, not just a few.

Much of what Byrne says is true, or at least valid, though one might take issue with much of it, not least of all its description of Manhattan and Brooklyn as “playgrounds” — personally I loathe the way we seem to think that creativity comes out of being like children (it usually doesn’t).

Ferdinand Hodler, The Day (detail).

Ferdinand Hodler, The Day (detail).

As Byrne seems to suggest, adversity in itself isn’t going to produce anything of value. Living in poverty just means having virtually no potential for creativity, since that requires working with some kind of materials, whether one is a writer, painter, or something else. I think we understand that. But adversity is inherent, and inescapable, both in real creativity, and in the development of the culture and the individual so that each reflects the higher man.

There is something we should understand. That is, the union of creativity and morality. In classical Chinese culture, the artist was respected for his moral behavior as well. An accomplished artist who behaved reprehensibly was not considered a great artist. This is different to the contemporary arts. At the moment were witnessing a rash of young, female pop stars undressing and acting as provocatively as possible (with Miley Cyrus grabbing most of the attention) to gain popularity. Such behavior would be quite alien to the classical Chinese, as it is still to most cultures in the wold (at least outside the West).

We can understand the classical Chinese position, and the position of many traditional cultures in this way. The arts, writing, martial arts, and so on, were aspects of the Way through which man could come to embody the higher self. And the higher self was in accord with Nature — not just the environment, but the forces of Nature: life, death, the forces of “heaven,” etc.

BabakDarvish (Whirling Dervish) blog has an interesting piece about courage up at the moment. He begins by quoting Mahatma Gandhi: “Cowardice is impotence worse than violence. The coward desires revenge but being afraid to die, he looks to others, maybe to the government of the day, to do the work of defense for him. A coward is less than a man. He does not deserve to be a member of a society of men and women.” The title of the blog post is “Cowardice vs. Courage: Progress Comes With Conflict.”

Salvador Dali, Three Sphinxes Of Bikini.

Salvador Dali, Three Sphinxes Of Bikini. In the foreground is a human head comprised of a mushroom cloud, indicative of nuclear war.

Courage is learned and cultivated in the face of adversity. In martial arts, for example, it is only through facing opponents — many of whom may have overwhelmingly more power and speed — that one learns to be less afraid of violence and conflict. (At the same time, it should also cultivate in the individual compassion for those that he will also spar against who may be at a lower level of achievement in martial arts.)

Today, we have many opportunities that did not exist even twenty years ago, with the internet; possibilities for publishing through print on demand technology; 3D printers; new fabric printing technology; hyrbid cars and “alternative” energies such as solar; and so on. But we’re also potentially facing challenges such as we may never have seen before, such as environmental disasters; terrorism on a global scale; and the transformation of settled communities through migration.

The models we have created probably will not be able to cope with the emerging problems, not least of all those that may emerge a century or so from now.

There is adversity. And we cannot avoid it. But that is no bad thing. It means only that we must once again realize that cities are not playgrounds; that art, and creativity more broadly, is not devoid of, and should not be segregated from, morality and ethics. And that, moreover, creativity is inevitably an expression of courage, and that courage is the beginning of the transformation of the individual into the higher self.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.

Adversity, and its Importance