Adversity, Pushing Us Forward – John Dalton

This past week I read two stories of remarkable women using stories to help themselves and others move forward despite horrific tragedy, Project in Kampula, Uganda: We’re Not Going to Die Today or Tomorrow and From Storytelling to Community Development Jaghori, Afghanistan.  I also read Arachne and Minerva: Women, Power and Realization.


It struck me how very different the stories about Uganda and Afghanistan were from the story of Arachne and Minerva.  The first two were about coping, hope and rebirth, while Arachne and Minerva called attention to our baser instincts of pride, envy and competition.   I cannot help reflecting on the role adversity plays in pushing us forward as individuals, groups and societies.

The sources of adversity in these three stories were an anti-pattern to Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs.[1] The women in Uganda were suffering from HIV, a tragedy that was not purposely inflicted on them.   The women in Afghanistan were suffering as a byproduct of a decades of war.  And finally, Arachne’s pride and Minerva’s envy proved that we are capable of creating adversity all within our own minds.

Like many things we have discussed this term, I believe our ability to face and even create adversity goes back to brain science and forty thousand years of evolution.  Nature selected those of us who could band together to find food and shelter and fight off our enemies.  In class we talked about groups having boundaries and our natural tendency for inclusion and exclusion.

Our first group is our nuclear family.  As highlighted in Project in Kampula, our origin story helps give meaning to our lives.  There is obviously a huge developmental relationship between children and their parents and other elders.  Breakdowns in these relationships cause significant challenges for individuals, families and society has a whole.  Phil Cousineau recalls an interview with the renowned psychologist Rollo May who told him,

“I’ve come to reluctantly believe Nietzsche was right. Our powerful hunger for myth is a hunger for community. As a matter of fact, after fifty years of practicing psychoanalysis I’m convinced that people go into therapy not so much for advice as for presence, to be in the presence of someone they trust and admire.”[2]


Reading about spreading literacy in Afghanistan reminded me of Khaled Hosseini’s first two novels. The stories of Amir in The Kite Runner and Marium in A Thousand Splendid Suns are tragic, but wonderful origin stories that give meaning to the suffering in Afghanistan.  The brutal images of rape and stoning by the Taliban are almost inconceivable. When I read these novels back in 2007, the average age of an Afghani male was only thirteen.  I rechecked this statistic.  The average male age is now seventeen.  It is remarkable that despite two generations of war and the brutality of the Taliban, that these young women in Jaghori were able to begin rebuilding an educational system.


I read the story of Arachne and Minerva with these horrid images still in my consciousness. Arachne’s pride and Minerva’s envy seemed almost trivial.   Nevertheless, my mind kept coming back to the less horrifying seven deadly sins of my Catholic upbringing: 1) pride, 2) lust, 3) anger, 4) covetousness, 5) envy, 6) sloth and 7) gluttony.  Clearly, the ladies had issues with numbers 1,3, 4 and 5.  They also struggled with first and tenth commandments “Thou shalt not have false gods before me” and “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.”  Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, has at least three stories dealing with pride and envy: Adam and Eve tasting the fruit of good and evil, Cain killing Abel, and Joseph being sold into slavery by his jealous brothers.  Like the Greek myth of Arachne and Minerva, these stories attempt curtail our base instincts, passions and character flaws.


While I cannot rationalize sloth and gluttony, our other passions: pride, lust, anger, covetousness and envy seem to serve useful purposes when focused appropriately and in the right proportions.  For example: pride leading to mastery; lust to procreation; anger, covetousness and envy calling us to action.


These stories reminded me that adversity takes many forms.  Sometimes it’s the basics of food, shelter and health.  Other times adversity comes from our need to fit in with a group or compete with another group.  And, finally if we do not face adverse conditions externally we are fully capable of creating our own internal conflicts.  These reflections left me with two final questions, “can we be our best selves without facing adversity?” and, “what healthy challenges can we create to move ourselves forward?”



[1] Sachs, Jonah. Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell (and Live) the Best Stories Will Rule the Future (p. 129). Harvard Business Review Press. Kindle Edition..

[2] Cousineau, Phil. Once and Future Myths: The Power of Ancient Stories in Our Lives (p. 13). Red Wheel Weiser. Kindle Edition.