The Opportunity of Adversity: Aimee Mullins (Full Transcript)

The human ability to adapt, it’s an interesting thing, because people have continually wanted to talk to me about overcoming adversity, and I’m going to make an admission: This phrase never sat right with me.

And I always felt uneasy trying to answer people’s questions about it, and I think I’m starting to figure out why. Implicit in this phrase of “overcoming adversity” is the idea that success, or happiness, is about emerging on the other side of a challenging experience unscathed or unmarked by the experience, as if my successes in life have come about from an ability to sidestep or circumnavigate the presumed pitfalls of a life with prosthetics, or what other people perceive as my disability.

But, in fact, we are changed. We are marked, of course, by a challenge, whether physically, emotionally or both. And I’m going to suggest that this is a good thing.

Adversity isn’t an obstacle that we need to get around in order to resume living our life. It’s part of our life. And I tend to think of it like my shadow. Sometimes I see a lot of it, sometimes there’s very little, but it’s always with me.

And, certainly, I’m not trying to diminish the impact, the weight, of a person’s struggle. There is adversity and challenge in life, and it’s all very real and relative to every single person.

But the question isn’t whether or not you’re going to meet adversity, but how you’re going to meet it.

So, our responsibility is not simply shielding those we care for from adversity, but preparing them to meet it well. And we do a disservice to our kids when we make them feel that they’re not equipped to adapt.

There’s an important difference and distinction between the objective medical fact of my being an amputee and the subjective societal opinion of whether or not I’m disabled.

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And, truthfully, the only real and consistent disability I’ve had to confront is the world ever thinking that I could be described by those definitions.

In our desire to protect those we care about by giving them the cold, hard truth about their medical prognosis, or, indeed, a prognosis on the expected quality of their life, we have to make sure that we don’t put the first brick in a wall that will actually disable someone.

Perhaps the existing model of only looking at what is broken in you and how do we fix it, serves to be more disabling to the individual than the pathology itself.

By not treating the wholeness of a person, by not acknowledging their potency, we are creating another ill on top of whatever natural struggle they might have. We are effectively grading someone’s worth to our community.

So we need to see through the pathology and into the range of human capability. And, most importantly, there’s a partnership between those perceived deficiencies and our greatest creative ability.

So it’s not about devaluing, or negating, these more trying times as something we want to avoid or sweep under the rug, but instead to find those opportunities wrapped in the adversity.

So maybe the idea I want to put out there is not so much overcoming adversity as it is opening ourselves up to it, embracing it, grappling with it, to use a wrestling term, maybe even dancing with it.

And, perhaps, if we see adversity as natural, consistent and useful, we’re less burdened by the presence of it. This year we celebrate the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, and it was 150 years ago, when writing about evolution, that Darwin illustrated, I think, a truth about the human character.

To paraphrase: It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor is it the most intelligent that survives; it is the one that is most adaptable to change. Conflict is the genesis of creation.

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From Darwin’s work, amongst others, we can recognize that the human ability to survive and flourish is driven by the struggle of the human spirit through conflict into transformation.

So, again, transformation, adaptation, is our greatest human skill. And perhaps, until we’re tested, we don’t know what we’re made of. Maybe that’s what adversity gives us: a sense of self, a sense of our own power.

So, we can give ourselves a gift. We can re-imagine adversity as something more than just tough times. Maybe we can see it as change. Adversity is just change that we haven’t adapted ourselves to yet.

I think the greatest adversity that we’ve created for ourselves is this idea of normalcy.

Now, who’s normal? There’s no normal. There’s common, there’s typical. There’s no normal, and would you want to meet that poor, beige person if they existed? I don’t think so.

If we can change this paradigm from one of achieving normalcy to one of possibility — or potency, to be even a little bit more dangerous — we can release the power of so many more children, and invite them to engage their rare and valuable abilities with the community.

Anthropologists tell us that the one thing we as humans have always required of our community members is to be of use, to be able to contribute.

There’s evidence that Neanderthals, 60,000 years ago, carried their elderly and those with serious physical injury, and perhaps it’s because the life experience of survival of these people proved of value to the community. They didn’t view these people as broken and useless; they were seen as rare and valuable.

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