Many years ago, I was teaching an adult class in macrobiotic philosophy. After class was over and the students picked themselves up and shambled off to their next class, one woman stayed behind. When the room was empty, she came up to me and said, “You’ve lost a child, haven’t you?”

I was stunned. She was right: I had lost my first son to an illness when he was not quite one year old. But how did she know?

My mind raced back over the previous ninety minutes. There was nothing we’d talked about in class that remotely related to the subjects of parenthood, bereavement, infant diseases, or anything else I could think of that would have conveyed even the slightest clues to that buried bit of personal information.

“I just knew,” she said, and I realized that, looking at her, I just knew too. How? I don’t know. But it showed.

Adversity changes you. It doesn’t simply add an experience to your memory banks, it engraves itself onto your being and alters forever who you are. This is true not only of death and bereavement, but also of such experiences as divorce, disappointment, loss of a friendship, discovery of one’s own deep error, reversal of fortunes, frustration of an ambition, failure or collapse of an enterprise.

Or (as John Castagnini points in this issue) having a prospect say “no,” or a key business partner say “I quit.”

I sometimes tell new distributors in this business that I won’t consider them truly in the business, genuinely committed and in for the long haul, until after they’ve had their first crushing disappointment. I sometimes cringe when I hear myself say it, because it sounds a bit brutal—but it’s the absolute truth.

About your business, and about your life.

Losing a child was an experience so terrible I would not wish on anyone. Yet at the same time, now that it’s part of who I am, I can’t truly say I wish it gone, either. It certainly made me less cocky (at least a little) and more capable of empathizing with another’s pain. Loss and failure shape you; they carve furrows of compassion, understanding and generosity of spirit.

That was how the woman knew I’d lost a child: she recognized the impact of adversity because it resonated in her, the way a tuning fork hums when you play A on the piano.

Adversity can deepen character, but sometimes it simply damages character. Faced with difficulty that feels too great to bear, the human being has two choices: break, or bend. In the breaking, we simply become bitter; in the bending, we are humbled and stretched.

You have no choice but to suffer loss; it’s inevitable. To break, or to bend: there is the choice.

 

JOHN DAVID MANN is Consulting Editor to Networking Times.