“One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” wrote Albert Camus. Being condemned to roll a rock up a hill for eternity, Sisyphus could not have been happy. But given the irrevocability of the punishment, he must have needed to make sense of it in order not to crumble under the weight of the boulder and expire. Much like Sisyphus, when we are faced with ineluctable challenges, we often try to come to terms with them instead of falling apart. It is thus that we manage to survive. “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”
Since the dawn of time, Man has had to ensure his survival by acclimating to his changing and often unpredictable surroundings. Experiencing harsh conditions, frequent catastrophic events and forced migration left early humans no choice but to be resilient. The ability to adjust to varying environmental conditions enabled them not only to live on but also to disperse throughout the world and sow the seeds of civilization. Adaptability became a defining human characteristic and humans continued to be persistent in the face of the challenges set by their environment. Recent research shows that modern humans are still evolving to adapt to our ever-changing world. In the words of D. John Doyle, humans “may well be the most adaptable mammalian species ever to evolve on Earth.”
All humans have a response mechanism that allows them to react to new situations. Evolutionary scientists, falling back on Charles Darwin’s theories postulate that this mechanism has evolved over the centuries. Modern humans are capable of using this mechanism effectively and attuning themselves to different circumstances. However, this capacity differs from one person to another. Psychology professor George Bonanno argues that personality and perception affect our “behavioral elasticity or flexible adaptation to impinging challenges.”
He elaborates that people have different “coping styles”. Some people are inherently flexible whereas others rely on “pragmatic coping.” They succeed in adapting to situations by unconventional and often unhealthy means. He provides the example of “repressive coping.” Adaptability is also influenced by one’s perception. Our construal (or misconstrual) of situations determines the way we cope with them. We perceive a change as a stumbling block or a learning opportunity and respond accordingly. Bonanno maintains that a change is not distressing until we see it as distressing. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus puts it “it’s not events that upset us but rather our opinions about them.”
Experiencing an event that we perceive as distressing and being urged to “adapt or perish” seems not only overwhelming but also reductive. Cognitive behavioral therapists write about resilience-building and argue that people can be trained to become more adaptable. They draw a connection between resilience-building and the ancient school of thought called Stoicism.
Stoicism is essentially a positive and edifying philosophy that provides guiding principles on how to cope with hardships. It is especially relevant when it comes to learning how to become more resilient. Stoics conceive of adversities as opportunities for growth. They hold that a person never knows how adaptable they are until they have faced a trial. Seneca deems people who “have never lived through misfortune” “unfortunate” because “no one can ever know what [they] are capable of, not even [them].”
“Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”