How to Triumph over Adversity
By Cary Friedman © 2007
As a young boy, Bruce Wayne who was later to become "Batman" was dealt the cruelest blow imaginable. He watched as his parents were murdered before his eyes! What greater horror can a child endure?
My mother and most of her friends are survivors of the Holocaust. They witnessed unspeakable atrocities directed both at themselves and at the people closest to them. As a child, I would listen to their stories. What always amazed me was the way they responded to their tragedies. My Mom and her friends came to this country with absolutely nothing. By the time I arrived on the scene, they had married, raised families, built businesses and sent their kids to college.
People respond differently to tragedies. Some people succumb to despair and self-pity. A typical response is "Why me? I just can't go on." Others dig deep and find a reservoir of inner strength they never knew they had.
After his parents' cold-blooded murder, Bruce could easily have allowed himself to hide behind a thick curtain of denial for the rest of his life. His inherited wealth would have allowed him to drown himself in materialistic, mind-numbing pleasure. He could have become the lazy, selfish, mindless playboy he only pretends to be. Who would have blamed him?
Instead, Bruce Wayne chose a very different path. He refused-and refuses-to succumb to despair or to embrace a philosophy of hopelessness. Every day-indeed, every moment-of his life, he faces squarely the adversity that life has dealt him, and he triumphs over it spectacularly.
Obviously, he can't bring his parents back to life. So what does it mean to win? He takes the miserable situation life handed him and, unbroken and defiant, converts it into magnificent victory by working, constantly and tirelessly, to ensure that no one else suffers such senseless loss.
Spiraling into despair was not an option for Bruce. Bruce Wayne describes what he chose to do as a result of his own experience with tragedy: "To protect. To defend. To guard. To stand against the gathering darkness that threatens to wash over Gotham like a poisonous tide."
Many of us suffer misfortunes in our lives. We, too, can choose how to respond.
It's so easy and seductive to succumb to depression and wallow in self-pity, to talk forevermore about what might have been "if only." The true test of heroism is to refuse to surrender to despair, to face squarely the difficulties that confront us and to try to impose a little order on our messy lives.
* * *
Self-pity is the easy way out. The more difficult choice is the road that the Batman chooses. His loss is ever before his eyes, the wound reopened daily. It would be much easier to bury his pain in some self-indulgent, self-defeating behavior.
Jewish tradition teaches that This World is a preparation for the Next World, a world of the spirit. Our job in This World, then, is to prepare for the Next World by developing and refining our character. While this can be a painful process, our goal is to challenge ourselves to rise above adversity and become the best, most noble version of ourselves.
Misfortune creates opportunities for personal growth, development and refinement of character.
Would Mahatma Gandhi, Michael Collins, Menachem Begin or Martin Luther King, Jr. have found the strength within themselves to change the world if not for the adversity they confronted? Would Helen Keller have attained the same greatness of character if not for her physical disabilities and her determination to triumph over them?
When life is easy, and everything is comfortable, there may be no particular need to tap into the depths of our potential. Why should we? It doesn't require a lot of bravery or patience to endure an ice cream sandwich of happiness and comfort.
On the other hand, when adversity strikes, we often begin to contemplate the preciousness of health and life and what we could be accomplishing. If Thomas and Martha had not been murdered, Bruce may have become the indolent, shallow, spoiled playboy he only now pretends to be. What motivation would he have had to tap into those limitless capabilities and push himself tirelessly to help people and battle evil? Why would he bother?
* * *
In the classic Detective Comics #500, a shadowy, supernatural hero, the Phantom Stranger, offers the Batman a chance to travel to another, alternate reality to prevent the murder and save the lives of his parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne. Robin [Dick Grayson] accompanies the Batman on this journey into that other dimension which lags behind ours by about twenty years, at the point when the Waynes are approaching their encounter with the gunman.
The Batman and Robin observe the Waynes of this other dimension in their home. The Batman, of course, is overwhelmed to see his "parents," and his reaction is obvious: "I swear by all that's dear to me ... I won't let you die again!" What's not obvious is Robin's reaction. He is circumspect because the young Bruce Wayne of this dimension is a "spoiled little brat!" Consider Robin's analysis: "This Bruce Wayne is a spoiled little brat! I wonder ... if we stop his parents' murder, will he grow up to become the bored playboy that Batman only pretends to be?"
Bruce Wayne used his own experience with personal tragedy to ensure that other people would live happier lives.
A crushing tragedy isn't the only way to inspire growth and accomplishment. Before we consider other lessons to be learned from the Batman, let's return for a moment to the happy conclusion of Detective Comics #500:
The Batman and Robin successfully prevent the murder of that realm's Thomas and Martha Wayne. But what becomes of little "spoiled brat" Bruce? Apparently, we learn from the story's postscript, adversity doesn't have to be final or fatal to knock us out of our complacency: "For as long as he lives Bruce Wayne will remember that night, three weeks ago ... and the Bat-winged creature that swooped down from the sky, saving the lives of himself and his family. That night, Bruce Wayne learned what Death was ... and he learned it could be averted, at least temporarily. Years from now, he will make a decision ... choose a direction for his life ... And when he does, it will not be a decision born of grief, or guilt, or vengeance ... but of awe, and mystery, and gratitude."
Let's use the small reminders and opportunities for growth, and maybe we won't ever have to receive those bigger, more permanent, less pleasant ones.
Reprinted from Chapter Two of Wisdom from the Batcave with permission of the author. Wisdom from the Batcave is available from www.Amazon.com and www.bn.com. For more information on Cary Friedman and Batman, check out www.batwisdom.com.
from the Febuary 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine