The Gift Of Adversity: The Unexpected Benefits Of Life’s Difficulties, Setbacks, And Imperfections, by Norman E. Rosenthal, MD
If you are looking for how adversity can be a gift for yourself, dear reader, this book is likely to be of only limited interest, since the author is so resolutely focused on drawing insights from his own experience that he does not always do a good job of connecting his own experience to more general ways that adversity can be beneficial to the reader. Obviously, this book will be of most interest to those whose Jewish experience and whose general political liberalism in repressive regimes and whose do-gooder idealism and sometimes naivete lead to one sort of problem or another that ends up having unexpected benefits of insight and wisdom, and less of interest to those who are less sympathetic to the reader for his frequent and sometimes dangerous acts of folly. If the author wanted to write a somewhat touching if fragmentary memoir, he succeeded, but if he wanted to help people realize gains from their adversity in life his book is not nearly as successful. Whether or not you appreciate this book anyway depends on how charitable you are to where the author stands, as is often the case.
This particular book is made up of 52 reflections that are divided into four parts that go on for more than 300 pages and give the reader a good sense of the kind of life and family experiences that the author has had over the course of a very eventful existence. The first twenty-four of the stories that the author shares relate to youth, be it the author’s youth himself or that of his own son or that of his own relatives, including the one he is named after. These stories of youth are, admittedly, pretty relatable, and include private schools and stories about humorous projects in class or the fickleness of memory or, more painfully, the long reach of sexual trauma and trouble with parents and the South African police. After that the author has eighteen stories about the problems of adulthood relating to his own job difficulties and moving to a different country as well as the need for responsibility in life and reciprocity in relationships. The third section of the book provides four chapters that look at heroic tales the author relates from his family’s experiences and his own meeting Viktor Frankl. Finally, the last few essays look at farewells and show how it is that dealing with death, whether our own or that of friends and family, can help us to understand the gifts of adversity.
Again, this was not quite the book I expected, as I tend to expect more general and theorectical books than personal ones when it comes to a topic like this. Still, even if the author’s life is different in many ways to my own, there are still a lot of ways in which the author’s struggles with adversity are ones that I can relate to, if only because I have lived a life that is full of many of the same kind of adversities–social difficulties, families with a great deal of suffering and abuse, political problems, and the like. I am not sure how many people can relate to these various matters, as adversity is very common but the specific nature and sources of adversity are not uniform. Admittedly, suffering adversity can (and should) give us the chance to empathize with others who have similarly suffered, but it can be of limited use to write about our own suffering with the goal of giving a general discussion of the subject of adversity, which tends to be deeply personal in terms of what aspects of the subject we can demonstrate a familiarity with, even if we, like the author, happen to be involved in psychology.