Last fall, wildfires raged through the hills behind our home, burning to the ground everything in their path. The fire came dangerously close, but all the homes in our neighborhood were saved.
Days later I went on my usual hike to assess the damage. Gone were the rabbits, the squirrels, the coyotes and the birds. Their habitat had been destroyed. The landscape resembled a desolate war zone, with just a few blackened tree trunks remaining. I felt sad for the loss of so much beauty and wildlife.
As I write these words it is six months later, the height of spring, and everything is green again. The squirrels and rabbits and deer are back, as are the crows, the red-tail hawks and the hummingbirds. Apart from some old snags, there is no trace left of last fall’s fire. In fact, we haven’t seen so many wildflowers in years.
Forest fires are a rejuvenating force for the landscape: they return minerals to the soil in the form of ash. With ample sunlight and little competition, shrubs put out tremendous growth by re-sprouting from underground. Certain pine cones, also called serotinous cones, actually require the heat from fire to open up and release their seeds.
Little did I know back in the fall that right below the surface, the blackened soil was brimming with life force, and that the destruction brought on by the fire was nature’s call for renewal.
Similarly, when we listen to the news and look at what’s happening in the world, we might ask, what’s being created that we don’t yet see? Even as our economic, political and ecological systems are dying, we are birthing a more balanced and sustainable world. Birth is by nature messy and painful—but also wonderful and miraculous.
Dealing effectively with adversity requires awareness of who we are beneath the surface, as well as the ability to see beyond our circumstances. I think of Helen Keller who was deaf and blind yet became one of most influential writers and political activists of the twentieth century; or of Victor Frankl who, as a concentration camp inmate, created one of the most inspiring books ever written, Man’s Search for Meaning.
Just like the seeds in serotinous cones, certain human strengths and gifts can be released only under the most trying circumstances. J.K. Rowling was a single mom on welfare when she created the Harry Potter fantasy series. Lance Armstrong’s victory over cancer ultimately propelled him into the most successful cycling career in history.
No one likes adversity: it forces us to wake up and change course. Yet life and human existence are about transformation. Why do we so love rags-to-riches stories? Because they are about people overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles, growing wiser and stronger in the process.
Life is a gift, learning is the challenge, evolving is the purpose. When we learn to welcome challenges, knowing that all is well, we uncover hidden treasures yearning for expression.
Josephine Gross, Ph.D. is cofounder and editor of Networking Times.