A few sixty year-old friends, the retired and less reticent ones, were loudly agreeing amongst themselves today that tough times made them stronger, better and wiser. Old men’s tales, surely. They want to believe they have benefited from the hard knocks faced in their lifetime, hardened like Charles Bronson in The Death Wish or the chiselled Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. Or maybe they learned the concept from secondary school Biology classes? Antibody in our immune system is what makes us stronger. When foreign substances such as bacteria, fungi, virus, toxins, chemicals, drugs invade our bodies, our white blood cells, the B-lymphocytes produce antibodies that will defeat the alien microbes. Our immune system records every microbe it has ever defeated, in the T-lymphocytes known as memory cells. The reappearance of these antigens will be easily dealt with the next time, before they can multiply and cause any illness. Yeah, we become stronger, with a better defence against foreign invaders.
Admittedly, there is such a thing as post-traumatic growth. Some friends share their stories of personal growth following a crisis. They gained a deeper sense of self worth, a greater appreciation of life and love, and perhaps the best reward is a lesson in compassion, altruism and maybe even spirituality. There’s wisdom there.
But, do we have to go through hard times to be a better and stronger person? Do we need to experience a traumatic medical condition or a bitter divorce that breaks up the family? Lose our home, stare at bankruptcy from close up? Why not just read a good book that can serve as our teacher, rather than learn from our own mistakes, a much tougher teacher?
This is what Marcus Aurelius taught us, when he was mired in war against Germania, saddened by the death of Faustina, his wife, and troubled by his son, Commodus who he realises is not the right successor to rule his empire. During his darkest hours, he wrote these teachings about hardship, italics are mine:
1. Do not give up.
2. Ask for help, but don’t expect it will come.
3. No use complaining, and no use worrying.
4. Positive thinking. How we think is more important than what happens.
5. If they can do it, so can you.
6. Hard is relative. Simplify the problems and it will be less hard.
7. Focus and take action.
8. Do not resist change. Change for the better.
9. Don’t let a bad situation make you bad.
10. Don’t get angry, get even. Anger and grief do more damage than the things that cause them.
I have had my fair share of the hard times. I was reacquainted with Marcus Aurelius in the movie Gladiator but I was more captivated by Russell Crowe in 2000. My retail empire was at its zenith. I was chasing the next mountain peak, my favourite childhood saying echoing loudly then. 一 山 還有一 山 高。 There is always a higher peak somewhere. My goal was to conquer the shopping centre based car accessories retail market, and I was halfway to achieving my dream, a national franchise chain. But the global financial crisis hit in late 2008, and my dream was soon shattered. Darkness enveloped the next five years of my life, I hadn’t acquired any wisdom from Marcus Aurelius. But, I have always had a strong affinity for my name, a deep self belief bestowed on me by my father. “Forever strong” is my name and with it, my wise father imparted to me all that the first century Roman emperor wrote. I’m unfortunately ignorant of an equally wise and strong Chinese emperor, maybe Wu Zetian?
The tough times didn’t make me stronger. My name did.