The Uses of Adversity

“The Eremite’s Desire” W. Zeitler

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Who has trouble coping with happiness? The challenge is what to do with adversity — when difficulty or calamity befalls, or we see an injustice we are called to address.

One classic approach was articulated by the Stoics, a philosophic school founded in Athens approximately three centuries before Christ. A core idea of theirs is that even though we may not be able to control what goes on externally to us, we DO have control over our RESPONSE to it. Thus the ’sage’ can learn to be content regardless of circumstances (more than passing resemblance to Buddhism methinks). In the centuries immediately after Christ, the Roman elite added a twist to this idea (and embraced their Stoicism II in a big way): the gods & goddesses are omnipotent, therefore how things are must be the will of the gods. And since Rome is master of the Western world, that must be Rome’s gods-given Manifest Destiny. Consequently, “Rome: Love it or Leave it” — which is precisely what some Roman Emperors did with many who dared to voice contrary opinions — “off to exile with ye!” What got early Christians sent to the lions wasn’t just that they wouldn’t worship the Emperor, it’s that they refused to drink the kool-aid of “Rome Über Alles!”

Another classic approach to adversity is simply to leave. That’s what the so-called “Desert Fathers” (and Mothers) did in the third century — they left the cities and went to live in the desert. Enough did so in Egypt that they formed an alternate Christian society. The solitude, austerity, and sacrifice of the desert were seen as an alternative to martyrdom (the highest form of sacrifice). And thus the monastic movement was born — there are Christian (and Buddhist) monasteries here in SoCal. Apparently monasticism has appeal even for atheists: Ayn Rand was an ardent atheist, and couldn’t one characterize her famous novel ’Atlas Shrugged’ as ” the good folks leave the evil big cities and retreat to Galt’s Gulch in the middle of nowhere to withdraw their support from Evil and live lives of simple virtue”?

An alternative to ’flight’ is, of course ’fight’, and that’s what the Reformers did whom we celebrate today. But in my mind the Monastics and the Reformers have much in common — in service to their Calling both were willing to give up acceptance by society and all the material and other benefits that go with that, enduring real hardship, solitude and danger. Luther lived ’on the lam’ for the rest of his life, sometimes all too close to being the guest of honor at an auto-da-fé. Nelson Mandela imprisoned for 21 years for refusing to yield his principles. Gandhi living a life of poverty on par with St. Francis. And I’m sure facing danger daily, living out of suitcases in Motel 6’s got rather old for Martin Luther King.

William Blake put it rather nicely: “Bring me my Bow of burning gold, / Bring me my Arrows of desire, / Bring me my Spear — O clouds, unfold! / Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight, / Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, / Till we have built Jerusalem / In England’s green & pleasant land.” (Or wherever we find ourselves.)

P.S. An “eremite” (etymological cousin to ’hermit’) is a religious recluse — from the Greek words eremia (desert) & eremos (solitary).