The Stoics were big on the idea of adversity revealing character. It’s self-evident really, when you think about for a moment. Peoples’ characters, like ideas, are often weak when untested. I wrote earlier on Seneca on (Unhappiness) and the Bar of Fulfillment and his view that “no man is more unhappy than he who never faces adversity. For he is not permitted to prove himself”
If we are not reaching our potential, how can we be truly fulfilled? And if we are not truly testing ourselves, how can we reach our potential? To continue along these lines and the idea of adversity revealing character, Epictetus drops a truth bomb by way of a wrestling analogy (bold my emphasis):
“The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic-class material. But this is going to take some sweat to accomplish. From my perspective, no one’s difficulties ever gave him a better test than yours, if you are prepared to make use of them the way a wrestler makes use of an opponent in peak condition.”
Epictetus and the Stoics are on to something here. One of my favorite Nelson Mandela’s quotes (who was also inspired by Stoicism) is “the greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” I’ve written extensively on Bruce Lee and his Jeet Kune Do philosophy for which he makes a similar point that it’s not failure, but low aim that is the ultimate crime. How can we evolve without adversity? Simply put, we can’t. Mixed martial arts and Lee’s Jeet Kune Do philosophy has proven this out (so has free speech by the way). Strength of character or ideas doesn’t happen with mutation and natural selection.
For the Stoics, Mandela, and Bruce Lee, the only truly losing is choosing to not face (or evolve in response to) adversity. But if we wrestle with adversity and we make use of those opportunities – there lies a better version of ourselves on the other side as our true character is revealed in difficult times.