The intersection of power and adversity sometimes yields freedom. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote:
“You only have power over people so long as you don’t take everything away from them. But when you’ve robbed a man of everything, he’s no longer in your power – he’s free again.”
This is a surprising paradox: that we humans become free when adversity has taken everything away and we have nothing left to lose.
Life’s difficulties can have this kind of effect. For example, people report bursts of freedom and exuberant power when the adversity of illness has left them with very little time. Similarly, severe financial adversity often results in expanded power to appreciate life and the non-material world. Losing a job can transform into a feeling of liberation.
Have you ever participated in or witnessed the kind of scenario that Solzhenitsyn describes? Can you think of life experiences where all was lost, yet there was freedom and power because adversity had wiped away everything? What is your relationship to this paradox? Is it familiar? How does it resonate with you?
Last night, I had the privilege to participate in an evening called, “How To Cope With Challenging Economic Times,” and I was personally challenged by a woman in the audience who asked a question to the effect of, “After all the cliches, the support of friends and family, the positive self-talk, the resume rewriting and the networking: after all that, my family is still desperate for money because both my ex-husband and I are now out of work. What do we do then?”
Her question cuts to the nub: what happens when there is so much adversity that nothing we do seems to change things and we feel powerless? The most I could do in the moment was to empathize and to focus on our shared human condition. Most likely, everyone past the age of 30 has had some loss from which there is truly no recovery – if we define “recovery” as restoring things to the way that they were.
Yet, the answer that most resonated with me – and the group – was that each day is to be taken one day at a time, and we get through it by loving each other. Cliche? Absolutely. True? You tell me. What else is there when all is said and done?
When adversity is so huge that nothing seems to work, do you: (a) withdraw to yourself (b) allow and invite others to support you emotionally (c) feel ashamed and try to work your way out of the situation by being tough, or (d) love yourself and allow others to love you through it? There is no right answer for everyone.
What do we do when prolonged adversity seems to be permanent? How are we able to access our power?
Continuing to explore the relationship between adversity and power, our friend, Tobey Crockett, reminds us of one of our favorite quotes:
“What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Friedrich Nietsche
Tobey writes: “This is related to the concept of design limitations that actually channel creative energy more powerfully into a narrower range of possible solutions and, thus, offer us a chance to do brilliant work.”
“It is much more challenging to do more with less and, thus, elegance arises. Or wit! Bennett Cerf, Dr. Seuss’s publisher, famously wagered $50 that Seuss could not write a book using only fifty different words. This, after Seuss had written the Cat in the Hat with only 225 words!”
Cat in the Hat is a book with only 46 words. Thanks, Tobey, and others who have written in on this topic!
Can you observe positive consequences to your power and abilities as a function of designing your way out of adversity? Where has adversity made you clearly stronger and more capable?
How often have you consciously chosen to take adversity and make it into personal power?
Adversity can be a catalyst for growing one’s power – or it can induce whining and complaining. Similarly, misused power can be a gateway to abuse and, thus, to adversity. There’s a fascinating relationship between the two dynamics.
Emerson said, “We acquire the strength we have overcome.” In this context, one might rephrase that to say, “My power increases by the degree of adversity that I have overcome.”
I’m no fan of “rose-colored-glasses thinking,” but I do know that adversity can – if we allow it – make us more powerful. However, that’s a far more likely outcome if we set our intention and choose to make adversity into power.
Think of current adversity in your personal and professional life. How likely is it that that adversity is ultimately making you more powerful? Have you chosen that outcome in advance?
Many of you know Allen Roland’s phenomenal work: the supremely talented author and therapist who wrote the seminal book, Radical Therapy (and a great friend). His very popular blog had a great quote today apropos of the unfortunate situation that Tiger Woods has created.
“The true test of a person’s character is not how they handle adversity. It’s how they handle power.”
Allen’s sentence (and the entire blog) caused me to consider how diversity and power are related. Adversity can cause people to steal and hurt others, and so can power. Both adversity and power can be met with good or poor intentions. I think Allen is right that power is far more likely to test one’s character than adversity.
What is the distinction between your experience of adversity and power as tests of your own character? How have others treated you when they had the power and you perceived you had little to none?
Stay close !
P.S.: You can find Allen’s original post here:
The link to his blog is here: