Since the world isn’t exactly fair, good things tend to happen to terrible people as often as bad things happen to wonderful people. Maybe because the latter is especially difficult to accept, we lean on a host of comforting clichés about turning misfortune on its head: Every cloud has a silver lining! It’s always darkest before the dawn! There’s a light at the end of the tunnel!
When misfortune strikes, our inclination is to wonder why me? But without misfortune, would we even be able to recognize its opposite?
I was thinking about this the other night around 4am at the emergency room, as my boyfriend spewed blood and other fluids from his nose and mouth at an alarming rate. Thanks to an allegedly benign sinus surgery gone shockingly wrong, he ultimately lost 36 percent of his blood in four hours, during which time I entertained some truly jarring thoughts: How will I handle my boyfriend’s death on the back of my sister’s? What did I do to deserve two major tragedies? Should I become a sexless depressive in his honor? Though I knew on some level that my boyfriend was safe in the doctors’ hands, the situation was dire enough to thrust the mere possibility of his end in my face, which freaked me out properly.
Long before the lab coats managed to halt the bleeding and to cauterize the leaky culprit of an artery on the operating table, however, my gloomy mindset was penetrated by a host of positive realizations: I am so fucking in love with this man! We are so damn lucky to have met. Because of this person, I can count myself a great success—at love, that is.
I certainly didn’t need my boyfriend to start spontaneously gushing blood to know that we were in love. But that painful, gory episode did serve as a reminder of our strong bond—and the reality that beauty is often masked in darkness.
Whether or not we deserve what happens to us is a question no human is qualified to answer. But each of us gets to choose how we look at a given situation, no matter how big or small the setback, and how we move forward. In the name of recalling adversity’s power to lead us to the brighter side, below are five major examples of the phenomenon, which happened to have impacted me. Please feel free to add to this list in the comments section.
1. Ron Woodroof gets AIDS, plus a sense of purpose
Dallas Buyers Club is the story of the hard partying heterosexual Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey), who was diagnosed with HIV in the mid-80s—back when the disease was still widely stereotyped as a “gay man’s illness”—and given 30 days to live. Though in denial at first, Woodroof ultimately transformed his life and attitude. As an advocate for patients’ rights, he smuggled medications unavailable in the U.S. across the border from Mexico, shedding his homophobic tendencies along the way. According to McConaughey, who met with many of Woodroof’s family members and friends while researching the role, AIDS gave Woodroof a much needed sense of purpose throughout the six years he lived past his presumed expiration date.
2. The Elizabeth Smart story
Reflecting on her kidnapping, Elizabeth Smart has said, “I was lucky.” That’s a hefty statement for someone who was ripped from her home at age 14, sexually abused, starved, and psychologically tormented for months by her two adult captors. But unthinkable trauma seems to have gifted Smart with a special brand of perspective that allows her to feel grateful for being alive above all. As a grown woman, rather than sit back and try her best to forget the past, Smart uses her experience as a tool to educate the public (she published a memoir, My Story, in 2013), and to advocate for children’s welfare.
3. A cheap shot fuels Malala Yousafzai’s resolve
It’s hard to argue that getting shot on a school bus in 2012 was a good thing for Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Pakistani activist secretly blogging for the BBC about life under the Taliban’s rule. But the attempted assassination catapulted Yousafzai onto an international platform, which she has deftly navigated to generate attention for critical issues that would have remained overlooked by many otherwise.
4. Snowboarder loses gold medal hopes, gains a cause
Chances are, you associate the name Shaun White with gold medal worthy snowboarding, but you don’t even know who Kevin Pearce is. Pearce was one of White’s biggest competitors—until 2009, when a near-fatal halfpipe accident left him permanently brain damaged. As Pearce healed, he was slow to accept that he would never again be an Olympic contender. Once he came around, though, he did so with passion equal to that he once applied to the sport he loved. Pearce now helms the Love Your Brain social movement, a campaign focused on brain injury prevention, rehabilitation, and overall health.
5. Russell Brand’s addiction savvy
Beyond entertaining the masses, Brand’s major contribution to society is addiction awareness. If you haven’t watched Brand testify to Parliament about his experience with addiction, you should.
The man is candid, smart, insanely articulate, and uncompromising in his progressive views about treating a disease that affects so many. Brand has made a distinct choice to tap into the darkest time of his life, the junkie years, to enlighten others.
Read more about the power of adverse circumstances in changing us for the better here.