Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records.
– William Arthur Ward
It’s an astonishing thing to observe people who encounter obstacle after hurtle after challenge, and yet seem to only gain strength and confidence and power after each, seemingly insurmountable, roadblock is set before them. There’s a great scene in the animated movie KungFu Panda II in which the bad guy – an evil peacock – laments, “How many times do I have to kill the same panda?!” because the Panda, of course keeps getting stronger throughout the movie, until the end in which he’s catching blazing cannonballs and throwing them back. All because he’s found inner peace.
Terry Fox was like that. He developed cancer in 1980, and while still in the hospital, decided to run across Canada to raise money and awareness for cancer research. We lost Terry to cancer but only after he had run a couple thousand miles across Canada…on a prosthetic leg. His mother Betty Fox kept Terry’s legacy and spirit alive for the last thirty years.
In the book Born to Run, we learn Scott Jurek had such an alchemy moment at the 2005 Badwater Ultramarathon. It’s a 135 mile ultramarathon. Run in Death Valley at temperatures typically approaching the mid-120s. After Scott collapsed after (only!) 55 miles in a ditch in 125 degree heat in a catatonic stupor, he laid in a bucket of ice and searched his mind for ten minutes. Then stood to run the next 80 miles in record time to win the race.
I’ve watched my mom, Bev Hunter, conjure resilience and calm in the storm of cancer. Harnessing the cumulative strengths of her community, her faith, her research-driven analytical mind, family, and joie de vivre, she has transmuted obstacle into power, challenge into growth, fatigue into enlightenment. Erik Weihenmayer uses that term Alchemist to describe just such people who turn adversity into strength, a challenge into innovation, a smack-down into power.
I certainly agree we have the ability to surprise ourselves. If you watch kids, they do it all the time while testing the boundaries of their own possibilities. And then they move on to the next challenge. We often reflect that what seemed daunting and impossible at the time, seems small, easy and controllable in retrospect.
But the key is to take the leap, sign up for that daunting project, or impossible race, or mythic challenge you might think is beyond you. Build those capacities, strengths and creative resources now, because you never know when the world is going to sign you up for something beyond your control.