Adversity – a condition of misfortune, hardship, difficulty, distress, the suffering of an individual from the conditions that surround them. Man’s ability to weather a storm is well-documented and well enshrined in popular culture; the subject of many a Pulitzer-prize winning novel, or academy award winning movie. Heck, our love for the underdog goes all the way back to the 1600s, when Robert Herrick wrote in Hesperides, “If little labour, little our gains: Man’s fate is according to his pains.”
Human nature loves the feel-good story of the great equalizer of adversity: it pushes people to action, driving them towards better outcomes, and it topples those who we perceive are undeserving of fortune, pulling them down from positions of power. This notion that adversity is inevitable and unbiased in its consequences is one that we hold dear – it provides comfort in knowing that we are at the beck and call of a force that cannot be foreseen or avoided. But adversity is a ‘sometimes’ friend: it is a tornado of chaos that unleashes havoc in time-bound escapades, always hitting someone somewhere, but not everyone everywhere. So where are the narratives about the adverse-less majority, the successful and the saintly, where power and character are not mutually exclusive, nor triggered or supported by the lack of other viable options? These are the individuals who have greater cause for celebration, for they have taken proactive action towards good, as opposed to reactive action towards surviving. Whilst there is no denying that adversity creates a burning platform to reinvent and innovate, there is no greater test of character than to uphold morality and to seek higher levels of benefit for society than when the platform is fire-resistant, with multiple fire extinguishers at your immediate disposal, and a back-up platform down the street just in case this one accidently catches on fire. Adversity provides motivation and an inability to stay stagnant, whereas to maintain character in a position of power requires commitment and a conscious decision to not take the easy way out.
So if that is true, if maintaining your morality is most difficult when you have the resources to cover your tracks and exponential opportunities to be rewarded for bad behaviour, then how do we reinforce and cultivate the right “character” in future generations? And how do we do this in a way that fosters a sense of morality, and ignites a desire to make the right decisions in difficult situations, when the power available to them means they could easily choose a more self-gratifying option and reap the rewards?
The answer is simple – we must teach them, above all else, compassion. We must teach them the importance of making moral choices. We must foster the development of intrinsic motivations. Whilst this must start in the home, our education systems have an important role to play to both directly and indirectly nurture compassion into our students. We must weave it through the curriculum in the stories we share and the narratives we create, and we must weave it through our teaching practice – the active and deliberate acknowledgement and respect of every child, teacher, parent and leader equally, and the showing and rewarding of compassion in the classroom. We must embed the placing of oneself in another’s shoes from the earliest age possible to make being cognizant of others a default behaviour.
It is not about de-valuing the human spirit and our ability to fight against the odds in times of severe adversity, but the very thing that makes us human and sets us apart from the rest of the life on this earth is our ability to seek and respond to a higher order motivation. This is the need to be fair, to be just, to place others before ourselves and to have conscience, and that is what we need to be celebrating and intentionally building into the fabric of society. Research has shown that the best teachers are those driven by altruistic (a desire to serve and advance society) and intrinsic (a passion for working with children and teaching) motivations, so who better to demonstrate compassion and empathy than those who are so driven by these forces that they chose them as a profession?
 37. De Cooman, R., De Gieter, S., Pepermans, R., Du Bois, C., Caers, R., & Jegers, M. (2007). Graduate teacher motivation for choosing a job in education. International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance, 7(2), 123-136.