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Is There a Key to Overcoming Adversity?

November 5, 2010

Is There a Key to Overcoming Adversity?

We have just come off an election season filled with blame and arrows flying. Whether or not we will like the results that our new lawmakers bring is yet to be seen. I think most would agree, however, that the electoral environment has been, at best, one of adversity.

Add to that a difficult economic climate, where so many still have no jobs or are underemployed. An overwhelming percent are dealing with houses in foreclosure or are fast approaching it. Bankruptcy is at an all time high. These adverse conditions touch us regularly.

For others, adversity shows up in the form of health issues. Disease, injuries and chronic conditions can have serious implications for our lives for both the short and long term. They can have debilitating consequences that can be frustrating or frightening, or even challenge our desire to keep going.

Because these issues are so widespread, it’s very possible that at least one of them is having an impact on your life today. Or you might experience adversity in another realm: ethnic, racial, religious, professional, or even social or academic. The world is rife with people and situations that test us – sometimes to the point of testing our very survival – every day. It is enough to dampen our spirits or even embitter us. So much so, that whether we are aware of it or not, we may unintentionally perpetuate the pain.

How do we keep from becoming bitter? How do we go beyond merely surviving in the face of these difficulties, and find the ability to thrive?

We can take some lessons from Alice Herz-Sommer, who is the subject of a new film, Alice Dancing Under the Gallows (see the trailer below). Alice lives in North London, and is 106 years old. Day in and day out she plays piano, a smile on her face. The neighbors in her building find it a blessing. People in her neighborhood come by each day and stand in the street just to hear her play the classics, all of which she plays by heart. A woman of 106 playing classical piano each day is quite inspiring, but what is even more remarkable about Alice is that she is a Holocaust survivor: she is the world’s oldest living Holocaust survivor. Her music helped her survive the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where she played, among other things, Chopin’s 100 etudes from memory. For her music is God, it is a religion.

At 106, Alice has a full life. She is a happy woman. She feels she is one of the luckiest people alive. Alice says, “I love people. I love everyone. I am interested in the life of other people.” Friends visit her each day for talk, games, and music, and what stands out most is Alice’s smile.

When thinking of the adversity she experienced in the concentration camp, Alice doesn’t sit in woe or remorse. She says, “Sometimes it happens that I am thankful to have been there, because…   I am richer than other people. My reaction to life… all the complaints of, ‘It’s so terrible.’ It’s not so terrible.”

Alice Herz-Sommer’s gift is her optimism. She says she was optimistic as a young girl, and that trait stayed with her throughout life, even through the darkest horror of the camps. She says that “when you are not complaining, when you look at the good side of life, everybody loves you.”

Even though she watched as her mother and husband boarded trains for the gas chambers at Auschwitz, she holds no malice. When German journalists come to see her they ask her, “Do you not hate us?”

Alice’s response is, “I never hate. Hatred brings only hatred.”

What incredible words. Alice has found forgiveness. Her optimism has enabled her to have a deep feeling of joy for her life, one that spreads out to others.

We may not be classical musicians or even know how to keep a beat. But we do have a choice, every day, to look on the bright side, to maintain our positive outlook. We have a choice to see God or spirit in that which we connect to intimately, whether it be in our work, our art or our relationships. We have a choice, like Alice, to truly love people and be interested in them. We have a choice to recognize that in spite of the adversity we face, life is not so terrible. Alice says, “Every day in life is beautiful. Every day.” She says, “Only when we are so old, we are aware of the beauty of life.”

Perhaps Alice’s wisdom can help us to take advantage of the extraordinary beauty of life before we are so old.

*             *             *

If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in “Have Your Choices Created the Life You Desire?”

We post every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The topic on Monday will be “What Triggers Our ‘Trust Antennae?'”

Robin Damsky

Robin Damsky is the rabbi of West Suburban Temple Har Zion in River Forest, Illinois, and co-author of Find-Fulfill-Flourish: Discover Your Purpose with LifePath GPS – a book, tool kit, and workshop series focused on guiding people toward more meaningful and fulfilling lives.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. November 5, 2010 6:08 am

    Great post!

    When we look for “the good” . . . we find it:

    Go Alice!!! 🙂

  2. November 5, 2010 8:33 am

    What an incredible story. These are truly inspiring words from a woman with a beautiful and loving heart. Thank you so much for sharing her story. Some days, amid all the chaos of the world it can be hard to find the joy and it is good to be reminded of what is really important.

    Keep well,

  3. November 6, 2010 7:58 am

    wow, what an inspiration Alice is! What a beautiful woman. Every day is beautiful. I really needed to hear that today – thanks!

    • November 6, 2010 10:06 am

      Thanks for your feedback. So glad you found it inspiring. I shared it with a friend who was troubled over problems at her office and it gave her a whole new perspective. Feel free to let others know. I hope to hear from you again and plan to re-visit your blog.

  4. November 8, 2010 1:23 am


    A real story of grit and determination in the face of adversity. We crib on small things, but people have had tougher life’s than ours. We should be grateful to god for all the comforts in life he has given us, rather be mournful regarding what we do not have.


    • November 8, 2010 2:28 am


      Very well said. It reminds me of something someone once said (and I cannot remember who) but it was along the lines of, “If everyone in the world unloaded all of their problems onto one huge pile and then all of these problems were distributed evenly to everyone, if given the choice, the vast majority would be happy to take their own problems back.”


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