Adversity and Gratitude

“As no man can enjoy happiness without thinking that he enjoys it, the experience of calamity is necessary to a just sense of better fortune: for the good of our present state is merely comparative, and the evil which every man feels will be sufficient to disturb and harass him, if he does not know how much he escapes.”—Samuel Johnson

It is quite by chance that I came across Johnson’s essay “Adversity useful to the acquisition of knowledge” (The Rambler, No. 150), since the piece is not in either of my hard copy anthologies of his works. It is the perfect Thanksgiving meditation. I post it as much for my own edification as for anyone else’s.

Not only are there practical benefits to overcoming life’s challenges—it is often the motivator for new ideas and inventions; there is spiritual profit as well. Drawing inspiration from the Roman Stoic writer Seneca, Johnson explains that

By suffering willingly what we cannot avoid, we secure ourselves from vain and immoderate disquiet; we preserve for better purposes that strength which would be unprofitably wasted in wild efforts of desperation, and maintain that circumspection which may enable us to seize every support, and improve every alleviation. This calmness will be more easily obtained, as the attention is more powerfully withdrawn from the contemplation of unmingled unabated evil, and diverted to those accidental benefits which prudence may confer on every state.

It is a paradox of our imperfect state that too much ease and success can leave us just as unhappy as too much misfortune. It is easy to dwell on the things we desire yet do not obtain (regardless of whether they would have been really good for us) while at the same time being unmindful of how many difficulties we have been spared. For related commentary, see “Johnson on Gratitude.”

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