The Uses of Adversity

Madeline Clark

When Christina Rossetti wrote her famous lines:

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend. . . .

she was not furnishing posterity with a classic grumble, but stating a fact of nature: that all must climb, and keep on climbing, out of their old conditions into the ever new; out of their lesser into their greater selves. And this must be until the great cycle of activity comes to an end, when indeed, as she goes on to say, there will be rest. Why this progress should inevitably be accompanied by travail and suffering, is a mystery that has preoccupied thinkers for ages. It was the theme that started the Buddha on his quest for human liberation; it is the moving power in many a life devoted to humanitarian labors.

Today, though, this idea of suffering and the why of it belongs to us all. People can no longer go blithely on their own prosperous way, oblivious of the trials of countless others in the far-flung picture of the world's current history. We may not be able to account for the universality of suffering, but we are beginning to realize that it is a great unifying power, binding all men together in sympathy and mutual helpfulness.

We find it said in the greatest philosophies that the soul progresses best through suffering: that suffering is necessary for any birth into a larger life. It certainly reveals to us something of what others are going through, ordeals of which we may have had no idea. It makes us pause and try to find the meaning of things; it refines and in the end ennobles our undeveloped human nature. Deprivation, frustration even of cherished personal desires, can be anything but crippling. These apparent setbacks are as a good pruning is to a plant; they throw us back upon ourselves to work upon our root-system, the deeper potentialities we had not suspected were there; and in the end, out come the fresh new shoots and green leaves of our new selves.

"Sweet are the uses of adversity," was not an idle reflection of the banished Duke in As You Like It. Having lost his dukedom, and being reduced to living in the forest, close to nature and away from splendors and distractions, he and his court found the keen joy of discerning "tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones."

The present age, with its cool and realistic outlook, possibly is readier than any former age to examine the subject of suffering unmoved by gloom or dismay. And there would be value in such a study, beset as we are by dangers that have in them more than a mere hint of disaster. There has also been a tendency of late years to embrace in our thought the lower kingdoms of nature as younger brothers in the general family of living conscious beings; and to go a step further would be to include them in the grand procession of climbers up the hill of spiritual progress. The animals and plants, at least, actually experience in a rudimentary way something of what we ourselves do. Toil and suffering are not unknown to them.

Can we say, moreover, that trees do not suffer, standing patiently in a sort of suspended animation all through the hot dry summer? Sir Jagadis Chunder Bose, the eminent Hindu scientist, makes it plain that plants are sensitive in varying degrees to shock, as when they are transplanted — that they have a nervous system of their own sort, and feel changes of treatment and environment, though their condition of consciousness is low and vague compared to the keenness of our own.

The animals, which are a step nearer to us in form and consciousness, have suffered chiefly through their association with man. Yet the universal law that all must work in order to grow remains unchanged. The life of the wild animals, for example, is one of intrepid adventure in which courage, resource and fortitude of a high order are called for in the perpetuation of their kind and the maintenance of their own instinctive customs; ingenuity also in outwitting natural enemies, a sense of responsibility, and alertness in seizing opportunities. Hence, among the wild creatures basic qualities are coming into being, which will not be lost in any future state, but will remain forever in that part of their consciousness which underwent the discipline of attaining them.

Almost equally intriguing are the experiences of those animals who have participated with man in forms of work that have fitted into the pattern of our civilization. With all of these, of course, the will to work is an impulsion from their masters, yet who can say that their willing co-operation and helpfulness is not laying a basis for the future? Perhaps their lot is far better than that of the pampered lap-dog or cat which is not required to make the slightest effort, but whose evolution may well be retarded by its purblind owners.

This impulsion to effort begins at the very moment of birth, for there is much reason to believe that the infant, animal or human, must itself struggle to emerge into the arena of life. There was in fact an old belief that in a difficult birth the child-to-come was unwilling to make the effort; and it is quite possible that with greater knowledge of the worlds of consciousness — of human origins and destiny — will come confirmation of that old belief.

Dr. John Maronne of Monterey Park, California, upon his retirement after thirty-five years of practice during which he delivered 5,104 babies, expressed himself as never having lost "a feeling of awe at the newborn infant's fight for life." As reported in the Los Angeles Times for April 28, 1952, Dr. Maronne said:

Years ago I had one premature birth where the baby weighed less than two pounds. It looked hopeless. Then it began to cry, and I remember thinking, "That kid is trying to live." There wasn't any hospital then, so I put that little thing in a cracker-box with a light for heat. We fed it with an eye-dropper for six weeks. That boy grew to 200 pounds and joined the Navy.
It's odd. Sometimes you will get a healthy-looking nine-pound baby that won't try, and it dies in your hands.

In all effort there is an element of pain — ask any child in school when with flushed face and tousled hair he struggles with a problem in arithmetic or his first "composition." One child I knew would cry with distaste and dread whenever a new and untried subject was introduced in the class. But such disquiet is only an initial pain, closely akin to joy when success in the effort begins to dawn. If there is pain at all it is on the part of that element in us which does not like to be roused from its inertia: which, in fact, cannot envision the bright goal of effort, but knows it must submit to the mastery of the higher consciousness in which resides hope and vision.

It is quite possible that intelligent and well-sustained effort in right directions could save us from much suffering. Perhaps this is what Emerson meant when he spoke of paying scot and lot as you go along. And insofar as we are paying this scot and lot, just so far are we more or less protected from the visitations that bring us from without the discipline of "fortuitous" suffering. But, as in Edwin Arnold's famous lines:

Ye suffer from yourselves. None else compels.
None other holds you that ye live and die,
And whirl upon the wheel, and hug and kiss
Its spokes of agony.
— The Light of Asia

The secret is to find within ourselves the Individual to whom pain and pleasure are the same, who meets whatever is in the calendar with trust and equanimity. For suffering is the great strengthener. As a very ancient saying from the Book of the Golden Precepts has it:

The Lamp burns bright when wick and oil are clean. To make them clean a cleaner is required. The flame feels not the process of the cleaning. "The branches of a tree are shaken by the wind; the trunk remains unmoved."

If the road winds up-hill all the way, that does not mean that there is no rest and joy along the way. But we have to win through to the real joy which does not depend on pleasures picked like buttercups by the wayside. It is the feeling of having entered by right of self-conquest into a fraternity of the strong, whose strength is only such because it is used in the service of others. It is the joy that went winging through the Universe in that primeval time when the morning-stars sang together and all the Sons of God shouted for joy.

(From Sunrise magazine, November 1952; copyright © 1952 Theosophical University Press)

He who gives but a slender mite
And gives to that which is out of sight,
That thread of the all-sustaining Beauty
Which runs through all and doth all unite, —
The hand cannot clasp the whole of his alms,
The heart outstretches its eager palms,
For a god goes with it and makes it store
To the soul that was starving in darkness before.
— Lowell

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