I’ve been very blessed in my life. I’ve had opportunities that I know that many, many people have not had. I was not born with privilege and didn’t grow up with privilege, but I’ve been able to take advantage of opportunities that either presented themselves to me or that important people in my life (most of all, my parents) made happen.
Even with these opportunities, I’ve faced both success and failure in my life, as all people have. I’ve had to overcome real adversity myself and, as I narrated in my essay about my mother and my essay about my father, I come from people who understand adversity and have overcome it themselves.
Over the years, I’ve collected quotations, stories, and other works that have provided me the inspiration to keep going and to overcome these challenges. These are all actual sources I have turned to when facing serious, major life challenges.
I wanted to share some of them with you today. This is hardly a comprehensive list, but it’s a nice sampling.
To Kill a Mockingbird
My absolute favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird. Its hero, Atticus Finch, is one of my role models in life and one of the great heroes of literature.
Early in the novel, he explains to his daughter, Scout, why he had her and her brother spend time with their curmudgeonly neighbor Mrs. Dubose, who spends her final days suffering through pain and withdrawal symptoms from her morphine addiction in order to die addiction-free.
I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.
His words foreshadow the battle he himself will wage at the core of the novel, defending Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in the Jim Crow-era South, a man who is doomed to be convicted before his trial even begins. Earlier in the novel, Scout asks him if he’s going to win his case, and Atticus responds that he knows he will not, but says he will defend Tom anyway because, “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.”
The most powerful scene in the story, depicted absolutely perfectly in the film adaptation, shows the respect he earns from the community and from us the readers for having fought the good fight, knowing it was a futile effort:
I was raised in a Hindu household, and so I grew up intimately familiar with the Ramayana, one of the two major ancient Indian epics alongside the Mahabharata (which is one of the longest written works of all time). The Ramayana tells the story of the righteous prince Rama, a divine incarnation, who accepts a 14-year forest exile in order to keep true a promise his father made to his stepmother. During the exile, Rama’s wife, the princess Sita, is kidnapped by Ravana, the king of the island kingdom of Lanka and the lord of all evil. To find and rescue Sita, Rama allies himself with the monkeys and bears of the forest, and with his army of forest-dwellers, takes on Ravana’s demon forces, ultimately defeating Ravana in battle.
The contrast between Rama and Ravana is stark. Rama, representing the forces of good, is a prince exiled to the forest who walks barefoot, lives off of fruits and roots in the forest, lives in a thatched hut, is armed only with his bow and arrows, and has an army made up of monkeys and bears. He is described as being a strong warrior but quiet and calm in countenance. This is in sharp contrast to the arrogant Ravana, representing the forces of evil. He lives a life that is the very embodiment of opulence and material pleasure. His kingdom of Lanka is vividly described in the 5th book of the Ramayana (known as the Sundara-kanda) as a decadent place filled with lavish wealth and treasure, rich foods, the world’s most exotic liquors, and the finest clothes. Ravana himself is described as an impressive figure, handsome and well-built, with dozens of beautiful wives who have come to him willingly. He is the lord of all evil, possesses many divine powers that he has been granted through penance and rituals, and his demon forces have brought the whole world to its knees.
The war between Rama and Ravana’s forces is epic in every sense of the word and Rama’s army suffers many, many setbacks and near-death experiences before Rama ultimately defeats Ravana in battle. This victory of good over evil and Rama’s return home after his exile are celebrated each year in the largest of the Hindu festivals, Diwali.
On the wall of my living room, I keep a painting that vividly depicts the moment that Rama kills Ravana. I keep it there so I can look up at it and remind myself of how much the forces of good had to overcome in that story for evil to be defeated.
The life of Theodore Roosevelt itself is paradoxically both a life of privilege and a life of overcoming adversity. He very much embodies the philosophy of what he often called “the strenuous life.”
TR was born in a wealthy family with a very supportive father. In childhood, he was a sickly child, suffering from crippling asthma long before there was any treatment available, barely growing. His father essentially said to him that he would either have to make himself strong or die. He enrolled him in an exercise program and TR built up his strength. Through swimming, hiking, and other exercises to build his strength, he overcame his asthma.
This gave him the confidence that carried him through life. A highly intelligent man reading the equivalent of one book per day and interested in opening his own natural history museum, he was admitted to Harvard where he excelled both academically and physically. He was an avid and skilled boxer and wrestler. He met and married Alice Hathaway Lee, the love of his life. After graduating, while attending law school, he wrote The Naval War of 1812, an immense scholarly work that is still considered the definitive work on the subject. He was only 23 years old then. He then ran for and was elected to the New York state legislature, at a time when politics was not considered a glamorous profession. He carried himself in a patrician manner, reflecting not only his aristocratic background but how he, psychologically, was riding on top of the world.
And then the world came crashing down on him. On February 14, 1884, in the span of a few hours, TR lost the two women most important to him in his life: his wife Alice (in childbirth) and his mother (from typhoid fever). He was devastated and fell into a deep depression. He found himself unable to care for his newborn daughter. So, to recover and rebuild himself, he left her in the care of his sister, he left office, and he traveled to the Dakota Badlands. There, living in the wilderness, learning from the frontiersman, he re-discovered himself. And, after living there for several years, he returned east a changed man. For the rest of his life, he would always preach “the doctrine of the strenuous life.”
TR said a great many quotable things in his life, but arguably his most famous oration is one that I’ve typed up, framed, and also keep hanging on my living room wall. It comes from a much larger speech he gave on April 23, 1910, called “Citizenship in a Republic.” The most famous passage from that speech has come to be known as “The Man in the Arena.”
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
In 1995, after Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president, he wanted to help unite his nation in the post-apartheid era. One way he wished to do so was to unite the country behind their national rugby team, the Springboks. Historically, white South Africans had rooted for the Springboks while black South Africans living under apartheid had rooted against them. So, he met with Francois Pienaar, captain of the Springboks, and urged him to build his team into a championship team that would win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. The day of the match, Mandela handed Pienaar a copy of “The Man in the Arena” for inspiration.
This story was famously dramatized in Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film Invictus. One slight dramatic alteration was made: instead of giving Pienaar “The Man in the Arena,” in the film, Mandela gives him a copy of the eponymous poem by William Ernest Henley, which in real life Mandela used to read aloud many times to his fellow prisoners while imprisoned on Robben Island:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
A close friend of mine and I used to recite “Invictus” to each other, as we faced many different struggles. The same friend also once coined an expression off-hand that has become a motto in our lives: “The world isn’t changed in large boardrooms. The world is changed by two people in a coffeeshop.”
She and I also drew a lot of inspiration from superheroes.
Superhuman figures have played an important role in societal mythology since ancient times. In some societies, some of these myths were regarded as fact, while in others, their fictitious nature still belied important truths and values of the society. In the modern era, superheroes can serve simply in the role of entertainment, or can serve in this mythological role.
Take my favorite superhero: Batman. Here is the story of a man who transforms the immense adversity he experienced as a child—witnessing the murder of his parents in front of him—into a motivation to fight crime, and yet with a principled vigilantism; Batman will fight criminals, and he will terrorize them, but he will never become a murderer himself.
In the instant classic film Batman Begins, which in my opinion is the best superhero film (yes, more than The Dark Knight or the original Superman or any of the Marvel films), Bruce Wayne’s father asks him: “Why do we fall, Bruce?” When young Bruce has no answer, his father answers: “So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.” Many years later, trusted butler Alfred Pennyworth must give the adult Bruce Wayne the same advice, prompting Bruce to smile and ask Alfred, “You still haven’t given up on me?”
“Nev-ah!” comes Alfred’s response.
Could any collection of inspiration at times of adversity be complete without multiple references to Rocky Balboa?
Let’s set aside, for a moment, the classic training montage from the original Rocky.
Or the montage of him taking blow after blow in his original fight with Apollo Creed and simply refusing to stay down.
Or the montage from Rocky II, where the entire city of Philadelphia joins him.
Let’s not even think about the training montage from Rocky IV, which stands out even in a film that spends half of its runtime on montages.
Or the montage from Creed, which turns it up to 11.
Let’s just focus on two great lines from the Rocky franchise. First, from Rocky Balboa, this advice that Rocky Balboa gives to his son, who is complaining to him about living under his shadow:
Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.
But it ain’t about how hard you hit.It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!
Now if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth, but you gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody. Cowards do that and that ain’t you. You’re better than that!
And, finally, in a moment of redemption for the otherwise awful Rocky V, when Rocky is lying on the ground after being knocked down in a street fight by his former pupil Tommy Gunn, his life and his memories flash through his mind, and a voice calls out to him, that of his former trainer Mickey: “I DIDN’T HEAR NO BELL! Get up, you son-of-a-bitch! ‘Cause Mickey loves ‘ya!”
I have told that line to myself more times than I can remember. It’s quite powerful.
Well, dear reader, I hope this has been beneficial to you. Like I said above, I am not at all joking when I say that these are all actual sources I have turned to when facing serious, major life challenges.
I’ll leave you with one final Rocky montage, this one from the closing credits of Rocky Balboa, showing the universality of the inspiration that he as a character provides.