The Experiential Value of Adversity: What can be Drawn from the Lockdown Era

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In this piece Bert Olivier explores the value of suffering: both for the individual, and as a catalyst for progress towards real democracy, drawing his inspiration from the Bildungsroman or ‘coming of age’ genre of novel.

The Bildungsroman Template

It may come as a surprise to some, but it has long been known that experiencing adversity – in the guise of hardship, setbacks and various forms of suffering – is actually valuable to those who have to work through such distress. In fact, it is a principle of what is known in literature as the Bildungsroman (novel of cultivation, or coming-of-age novel), and may be described as the belief that one can only become a truly ‘cultivated’ person on condition that one has experienced, and worked through, difficulties of the kind that usually afflict human beings in the course of their lives. The Bildungsroman is a novelistic genre founded upon this insight, and I believe that, in this time of crisis and impending hardship, one could draw succour from such works of fiction. In other words, if we resolutely confront each difficulty with courage and self-confidence, we shall emerge stronger and wiser in the end.

This may sound like scant consolation, given the crisis one faces today, where forces of prodigious magnitude callously continue to attack and undermine everything that used to comprise a familiar, reliable world. Since the Covid ‘pandemic’ the result has been a sustained blanket of cognitive dissonance in the face of the relentless exacerbation of the already deteriorating situation of ordinary people, while the so-called ‘elites’ seem to be exempt from it all. And yet, I would argue that even in this fraught situation one would benefit and take courage from narratives which thematise the generic thrust of the Bildungsroman, that one becomes stronger and wiser through adversity, provided one confronts it head-on, with courage and resolve.

The best-known Bildungsroman in English is probably Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations of 1861 – the story of orphan Pip, whose devotion to the cold-hearted Estella causes him heartbreak in the course of striving to become a gentleman after receiving financial support from an unknown benefactor. The narrative is marked by many and variegated instances of adversity, from which Pip eventually learns valuable life-lessons. Even the frigid Estella proves, in the end, to have benefitted from an extremely negative experience (literally) at the hands of an abusive, but mercifully deceased husband, and changes her attitude towards Pip.

Becoming Heroes in Our Own Stories – Anne of Green Gables

The above brief elaboration on Dickens’ celebrated novel brings to mind the Netflix series, Anne with an ‘E’, which is based on the novel, Anne of Green Gables (1908) – another Bildungsroman – by Lucy Maud Montgomery. The unfolding cinematic narrative is a captivating account of the life of an orphan Canadian girl, Anne Shirley, who is adopted – after an initial hiccup that nearly ended in her being sent back to the orphanage – by an elderly brother and sister, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, farmers in Avonlea on Prince Edward Island.

As in the case of Dickens’ Pip, Anne – who is now Anne Shirley-Cuthbert – meets with the most diverse array of experiential difficulties in her young life. As if the troubles she had to contend with when she was still at the orphanage, and while working for the cruel Mrs Hammond and her abusive husband were not enough, when she commences a new life with the Cuthberts she does not shift to plain sailing; far from it. At school Anne is treated cruelly by some of her peers, who mock her for her red hair and freckles, and because news of her orphan status preceded her. To cut a long story short, she makes friends with Diana Barry, from a wealthy family – whose interfering mother sometimes threatens to wreck their friendship – and eventually her intelligence helps her to excel at school and gain gradual acceptance in the Avonlea community, but throughout the narrative, her life is never an easy ride; new obstacles and challenges keep on cropping up. Yet, these never manage to squash Anne’s indomitable spirit; in fact, she grows in confidence precisely because of all the tribulations she has faced, and conquered.

It should be noted that the narratives of both Great Expectations and Anne with an ‘E’ are set in the social and cultural context of mostly conservative bourgeois values, some of which are less commendable than others. In Great Expectations, for instance, there is Pip’s prejudice towards Abel Magwitch (when he discovers the ex-convict to be the patron that enabled him to become a ‘gentleman’), and then there are the racial and patriarchal values displayed towards black people and indigenous Americans, and towards women, respectively, in Anne. In the Dickens novel these contrast with Pip’s generosity in anonymously obtaining a position for his friend, Herbert, at a shipbroker company, and in the Canadian narrative with the more progressive values regarding women’s rights espoused by the new teacher, Muriel Stacy – values that resonate with Anne’s own courageous promotion of these values through her actions.

Progressivism, Conservativism and Democracy

Why this reference to conservative values? Can one be a democrat in the true sense – that is, being committed to the principles of the freedom and equality of all people (before the law), regardless of nationality, race, or gender – and still be ‘conservative’? Or is the epithet, ‘progressive’, more compatible with the idea of democracy? I used to think of myself as a progressive, or even radical, democrat, because I subscribe to the principles of democracy referred to above, and because I agree with Jacques Derrida that ‘democracy is always to come’ – that is, at no historical juncture is democracy ever perfectly actualised – I believe that one will always find areas in social and political life where the ideals of freedom and equality are not realised, and therefore require serious action. Needless to say, the present unfolding attack on democratic freedom(s) instantiates an extreme case in this respect, and unless sustained, freedom-promoting action is taken by those people who wish to regain such liberties, they may vanish forever.

The question is: is such a ‘progressive’ approach to democracy compatible with the kind of conservatism perceptible in the narratives of the two works of fiction discussed earlier? I believe that there is indeed a sense in which these two concepts may be reconciled, as long as one subscribes to the notion that ‘human beings should examine all things, with a view to discovering (and retaining) what is good’. Put differently: a conservative (democratic) person could justify being ‘progressive’ if the latter is understood as finding, or accepting, ways to improve or preserve democratic practices.

To illustrate, in Anne with an ‘E’ one encounters the dark-skinned Trinidadian friend of Anne’s fellow student, Gilbert Blythe, who is sometimes addressed pejoratively by white people on the assumption that he is a slave, only to be told by him that he is a free man. These prejudicial approaches to Bash – as he is known – notwithstanding, the treatment he receives from the (initially somewhat taken aback) conservative Cuthberts is such that there is no doubt about them accepting him as a fully-fledged human being, and the community of Avonlea eventually follows suit. This, I would contend, signifies a ‘progressive’ moment in their conservative democratic worldview.

How do we preserve the good values of democracy and simultaneously promote progressive values which harbour the promise of expanding these and reinforcing them, given the undisguised threat hanging over them today? And what does this have to do with learning from adversity? Anyone who might still wonder what ‘threat’ I am referring to, should take notice of what happened on Maui recently, where a fire destroyed the erstwhile capital city of the kingdom of Hawaii, Lahaina, where ordinary Hawaiians – as opposed to American celebrities – lived. All indications are that the fire was deliberately caused, in an effort to expropriate these people, in this way clearing the way for turning Hawaii into 15-minute cities. Moreover, according to some reports, the WEF has admitted that it is responsible for doing this, raising the question: given the high death toll caused by the fire, will it be held accountable? It seems that the members of this organisation have become so (over-)confident, that they don’t hesitate coming out in the open any longer, with all their hubris on full display.

The Achilles Heel of the WEF? 

Given the brazenness of the organisation (the WEF) driving the economic collapse in the world today, with a view to engineering a (not so) ‘great reset’, is it really the case that they are untouchable by any means? That they possess tremendous power is certain, but there is no one, nor any organisation, that does not have an Achilles heel. Perhaps theirs is their overconfidence, issuing from their conviction, that they have closed all possible loopholes, such as bribing everyone who could put a spanner in the works for them. But already some exceptions have occurred, such as the recent case where U.S. District Judge Terry A. Doughty issued an initial ruling in favour of plaintiffs Dr. Jayanta Bhattacharya and Dr. Martin Kulldorff, that the U.S. government conspired with social media companies to censor free speech on a massive scale. Among other things, Judge Doughty wrote:

‘Although this case is still relatively young, and at this stage the Court is only examining it in terms of Plaintiffs’ likelihood of success on the merits, the evidence produced thus far depicts an almost dystopian scenario. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a period perhaps best characterized by widespread doubt and uncertainty, the United States Government seems to have assumed a role similar to an Orwellian “Ministry of Truth.”

‘The Plaintiffs have presented substantial evidence in support of their claims that they were the victims of a far-reaching and widespread censorship campaign. This court finds that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their First Amendment free speech claim against the Defendants.’

The Strengthening Struggle For Democracy

Evidently not everyone has been bought, or cowed into silence. We should remind ourselves of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s invigorating words: ‘There is nothing to fear but fear itself’, and brace ourselves while taking on the Behemoth intent on destroying us. The plaintiffs in the case referred to above did so whatever their fears might have been, and in so doing they depended on one of the pillars of democracy, namely, the judiciary, which is clearly still independent in some quarters. Moreover, such victories will encourage others to depend on the judiciary too when confronting the adversary.

In all probability, having recourse to the law, trusting that it will be implemented fairly by judges and magistrates, will not be enough to vanquish fascism and restore democracy, and one will therefore have to prepare oneself for the fight ahead at various levels. But whatever happens, democracy is worth fighting for, and the struggle is bound to make one stronger, in the same way that the characters in a Bildungsroman become stronger by tackling adversity uncompromisingly, instead of wishing it away. Unless people who wish to preserve their freedom do the same, in the end becoming stronger and wiser through their resolute battle with a formidable foe, democracy could be obliterated once and for all, ushering in a totalitarian state of global proportions.

2 thoughts on “The Experiential Value of Adversity: What can be Drawn from the Lockdown Era

  1. Good and positive points.
    The other value that came – and co tinues to come – in the wake of the attacks on democracy, is the disclisure of the many ways and extent to which people “in power” have hidden or disguised their crimes. Whether or not the potentates are legally condemned seems less important (with respect to Derida’s observation that democracy is always unfolding – a project with goals to strive for) than the awakening consciousness of common citizens to the extent to which we have been, and are being, indoctrinated by the mass media. The truth is no longer as true as we thought. Indeed, on the contrary.

  2. Thank you for that, Richard – yes, if one does not look at ‘people in power’ with new eyes now, after so many revelations of their abuse of power, there is something wrong with your powers of perception.

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