The reality of it is much more complex than what the saying would have you believe.
Adversity has visited me often. So much so, that by all rights, if the saying were true, I’d be Superman by now. Alas, I’m no Superman. Adversity nearly killed me. Adversity has had a beneficial effect on me, but this effect was not to make me stronger. At best, I would say that some adversity can build character, but the results are by no means guaranteed. It is more of a mixed bag, without guaranteed results.
The saying that adversity makes you stronger appears patently true to people examining biological processes, but who do not understand what they are witnessing. It is possible to conduct experiments, in which an agent deleterious to some organism is introduced. Some organisms will survive, and thus you declare that this agent somehow modified the organism so that it would survive the agent. The agent made this organism stronger. Not so.
For instance, you submit cockroaches to radiation. Most of them die, but some of them survive, and you declare that the radiation made the surviving cockroaches immune to radiation. This is an error of interpretation. The fact of the matter is that those roaches that survived had in their genes a mutation that made them more resistant, and this mutation existed prior to your experiment.
A similar phenomenon happens with antibiotics. An antibiotic is not modifying bacteria to resist the antibiotic. What it does is kill off those bacteria that do not have a mutation that allows them to survive the antibiotic. This mutation existed prior to the introduction of the antibiotic. Antibiotic resistance comes about, not because the antibiotic modified bacteria, but because those bacteria that survived no longer have to compete with those bacteria that died.
Another phenomenon that may make people think that adversity makes you stronger is exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is for people who have phobias. The therapy puts them into controlled situations in which they are exposed to what triggers fear in them. Over time, they learn to deal with their fear, and can be in the presence of the feared thing without panicking. So adversity made them stronger, right?
No so fast. I did mention that they are put into controlled situations. Let’s take someone with arachnophobia. The first step might be to make them imagine spiders, and have them describe those spiders. The next step might be to have an artificial spider in the room with them. The thing is that you go step by step, increasing with each step the level of exposure. You do not just lock them into a room with a tarantula, and hope for the best.
This is one aspect where the saying that adversity makes you stronger often fails. The person who faces this adversity has to be ready for the type of adversity thrown at them. If they are not ready, the adversity may very well crush them rather than have any beneficial effect on them. When I had my heart attack in my early twenties, this was the first huge chunk of adversity thrown at me. I did not take it well. I needed antianxiety medicines and counselling to get over it. I thought my life was effectively over. I’m 51 now. My life was far from over.
When I had my cancer in my late forties, my experience with my earlier heart attack helped me navigate it better than I did my heart attack. This cancer nearly killed me, and I knew it was killing me as I went into treatment. Yes, I still required antianxiety medicine, and counselling. Still, I handled it much better than I did my heart attack. The heart attack was mostly a punctual event. My cancer was a multi-year event. The first symptoms started towards the start of 2020. My treatment extended into 2021. I’m still recovering from it. Frankly, I dread to think how I would have handled this cancer in my twenties. I might have killed myself, because I was not ready for it.
You might say that my heart attack in my twenties mutated my mind. There was no goal in this mutation, but it had the effect of making me ready for more adversity when I had my cancer. Another agent that mutated my mind is my practice of Zen meditation. In my twenties, when I had a heart attack, I was but a very green student. My cancer happened after a good 25 years of practice. No one starts practicing Zen with the idea that one day, they’ll be better able to handle their cancer, but that’s what happened. The fact of the matter is that my mind was mutated to handle my cancer, prior to me getting cancer.
No, what adversity has done to me is not to make me stronger, but to soften me, and to make me kinder towards one and all. Oh, I still have a temper, which can come up if someone presses on the right buttons really hard. However, the multiple romantic relationships since the divorce from my ex-wife have shown, quite clearly I might say, that I am now a more patient and kind man, than I ever was. I am able to listen, with compassion, to what my partners tell me, pleasant or unpleasant. My first concern is for their happiness, and their well-being.
You might say that adversity builds character then, but again, the results are not guaranteed. When faced with adversity, some people hold that whatever adverse conditions they faced should be faced by everyone following them.
You take pills for your chemo? Well, back in my day…
Yes, some people take their chemo as pills. I envy them. My chemo required me to be hospitalized for each round. However, I’ll never ever suggest that someone who can get good care with pills should endure what I did. In fact, I hope that some day, my very own chemo will be administered with pills, at home, without the need for hospitalizations. Again, what results you get from adversity are far from guaranteed. Some people become assholes. I became kinder and softer.
This is not what people think about when they declare that adversity makes you stronger. They do not think about being soft, patient, and kind. Still, I’ll take my added softness over any added strength.