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How to Deal with Adversity
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How to Deal with Adversity

by Christopher Hamilton

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No matter how insulated we are by wealth or friends, we can all expect to undergo some form of loss, failure, or disappointment. The common reaction is to bear it as best we can—some do this better than others—and move on with life. Dr. Christopher Hamilton proposes a different response to adversity. Focusing on the arenas of family, love, illness, and death, he explores constructive ways to deal with adversity and embrace it to derive unique insight into our condition. In How to Deal with Adversity, offering examples from history, literature, and science, Hamilton suggests how we might recognize it as a precious source of enlightenment, shaping our very existence.

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How to Deal with Adversity

By Christopher Hamilton


Copyright © 2014 Christopher Hamilton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-05901-7


Ambivalence; or, Adversity in the Family

Ours is an age deeply committed to the family. We imagine that Western culture is largely built on a conception of the affective family – the result of two individuals coming together because they love each other and whose love deepens and finds expression in the having of children. We tell ourselves that it is in a stable family that children have the best chance of starting out well in life, and we idealize the image of a couple who stay together through all of life's vicissitudes. One of our stock conceptions here is of the old couple on the doorstep of their home, waving goodbye to the children and grandchildren after a pleasant Sunday spent together. No politician could openly criticize the family and get away unscathed, and those politicians who are in favour of letting gay couples bring up children or wish to defend the rights of single parents nearly always support their view by saying that these are merely alternative or new forms of the family.

But the reality, as we all know, is much less tidy than the standard images suggest. The family, much as we want it to be a place of calm and security that nurtures us, is often far from that. It can often be a scene of conflict and even violence, and much that goes on in it can be dreadful and painful, leaving psychological damage for life. We all have to learn to live with this and make something of it, and in this chapter I aim to explore a little how we might do that. I investigate things mainly from the point of view of children in their relationship with their parents.

Happy and Unhappy Families

In his book Thoughts on Happiness, Alain (Émile-Auguste Chartier) tells us that there are two kinds of people: those who seek to silence others and those who get used to the noise others make. They each search out their own kind, and for this reason, he says, there are two kinds of family.

There are some families in which it is tacitly agreed that anything that upsets one member is forbidden to all the others. One person dislikes the smell of flowers, another, loud voices; one insists on silence in the evening, the other in the morning. This person does not want anyone to mention religion, that person finds his teeth set on edge by talk of politics. Each recognizes that they all have a right of 'veto'; all avail themselves of this right imperiously ... This makes for a dreary peace and an irritated happiness.

There are other families where the whims of each are sacred, loved, and where it never occurs to anyone that his delight could be annoying to the others ... These are egoists. (Propos sur le bonheur: 83–4)

We all know what Alain is talking about, and we might find a complement to what he says in Tolstoy's famous first sentence of Anna Karenina: 'All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way'. This could mean many things. One interpretation is that there is little to say about a happy family – and much to say about an unhappy one. Some confirmation of this is found in Edmund Gosse's story of his childhood and his relationship with his father. In Father and Son he recalls many of the difficulties of his relationship with his father, who oppressed him with an intolerant and dogmatic religious outlook, but he tells us that on one occasion he spent time with the family of his cousins and was at ease and happy. Yet, he says, he can recall little of what he actually did whilst staying with his relatives:

This long visit to my cousins ... must have been very delightful: I am dimly aware that it was: yet I remember but few of its incidents. My memory, so clear and vivid about earlier solitary times, now in all this society becomes blurred and vague ... [O]f this little happy breathing-space I have nothing to report ... [Here was] a brief interval of healthy, happy child-life, when my hard-driven soul was allowed to have, for a little while, no history. (Father and Son: 47)

Of course, we do often remember good times, but Gosse's point alerts us to the fact that usually we are not puzzled by pleasure and happiness, and hence not especially driven to reflection on them, not least because when we are happy we are simply absorbed in what we are doing and the mind meets no resistance whose nature it wishes to fathom, perhaps in order to remove it. We accept happiness when it is there; it does not raise problems for us. Hence, we are not really very good at distinguishing the different kinds of happy family. However, Alain is easily able to distinguish two kinds of unhappy family, and gives us the sense that part of the problem in each case is that of living in an extreme. He shows us that finding peace and contentment in the family – as elsewhere – is about learning to be a kind of tightrope walker, balancing acrobatically in such a way that not only does one not fall but one retains one's balance with grace.

Balancing Acts

In the first volume of Proust's In Search of Lost Time, Marcel, the narrator, describes a scene, a moment, one evening in his young life that has much to tell us about family life – and about why achieving that graceful balance is so difficult.

Marcel's mother is in the habit of coming to his bedroom to say goodnight and give him a kiss. On the evening in question, however, when M. Swann, a friend of Marcel's parents, is with the family for dinner, Marcel is sent to bed before the adults are to eat, and, just as he is about to kiss his mother, the bell for dinner rings and the opportunity escapes him. Marcel goes up to bed, wretched. He conceives a plan to send down the maid, Françoise, with a note to his mother asking her to come up to see him. He tells Françoise that his mother wanted him to send a message about some object she had asked him to look for – he does not want to admit the true reason for sending the note. Françoise probably does not believe him, but hands over the message anyway. Marcel's mother sends back word to him: 'There is no reply'. Devastated, Marcel decides to wait up in his room and waylay his mother later when she goes to bed.

Towards the end of the evening, he hears Swann leaving. Then he hears his mother ascending the stairs. He goes out from his room to meet her. She is astonished to see him – and angry. He implores her to come and say goodnight to him in his bedroom, but she simply tells him: 'Run, run, so that at least your father won't see you waiting here as if you had gone mad'. Both Marcel and his mother know that Marcel's father would be highly likely to see the boy's behaviour as feeble and self-indulgent. But it is too late: Marcel's father is already on the stairs and sees what is going on. To the surprise of both, however, Marcel's father, seeing that he is overwrought, tells his wife to go with the boy and to have a bed made up for herself in his room: she should spend the night with him. She objects, not wanting to give in to Marcel's hypersensitive nature – both his parents are aware that it is only doubtfully good for him, for his future, that Marcel be so extraordinarily acute about such things. But she has the bed made up.

'I should have been happy: I was not,' reports Marcel. He goes on:

As it seemed to me, my mother had just made her first concession to me, which she must have found painful: for the first time she had given up on the ideal that she had devised for me, and it was the first time that she, otherwise so courageous, had had to admit defeat. It seemed to me that, if I had just been victorious, it was over her, that, if I had achieved what only illness, sorrow or age should have achieved – a loosening of her will, a bending of her judgement – then this evening was the beginning of an era, would remain as a sad date. (À la recherche du temps perdu I: Du côté de chez Swann: 38)

There are, I think, two key things that we can learn from this. The first is that Marcel has grasped, fully grasped for the first time, that his mother is someone else, that she has her own life, that the centre of her consciousness is not his. She is the source or centre of all that is good in his life – the missed goodnight kiss is a synecdoche for that, expresses it in compressed form. But when she withholds herself from him, as she does when she does not come to see him in his bedroom, Marcel realizes that this goodness is not in his control, that it can be withdrawn from him in an instant. It is not just that his mother's failure to come to see him makes him feel wretched; it is that Marcel understands how intensely fragile is his hold on the things in this world that nourish him.

The second important thing in this episode is the fact that when Marcel gets what he wants, he is not happy. He is not happy because when his mother comes to him she seems changed, because he has made her come to him. What he wanted was for her to come to him of her own accord, without any constraint on his part. In gaining his victory over her he has changed her, however subtle that change might be. A chasm thus opens up for Marcel and it separates him from his own desire. We normally think that there is nothing more characteristic of us than the desires we have: my desire to write this book, for example, is in many ways deeply expressive of the person I am – I can hardly imagine my life without my ever-recurrent desire to read, to reflect, to learn, to write – and we all have patterns of desire that seem typical of us as individuals. But Marcel is separated from his own desire: he gets what he wants and it makes him unhappy.

Someone might say, by way of objection: Marcel did not get what he wanted, because he wanted his mother to come to him unchanged. But this is to miss the point about Marcel's desire. He really did get what he wanted, but he did not really understand what it was that he wanted. Our desires are often like this: we realize, once they are satisfied, what it was that we had actually been wanting all along, because before the satisfaction of the desire we had not understood the price we would have to pay. It was not that we had not really wanted whatever we desired; it was that we had not understood the nature of our own desire. Of course, this is not to deny that one can satisfy a desire and then realize that one did not really want whatever it was at all. But Marcel's case is of the more subtle variety already described.

Ambivalent Feelings

Marcel discovers that the experience of desire is always implicitly or potentially traumatic. In particular, he discovers that his desire for his mother is traumatic. Melanie Klein, the psychoanalyst, might put the point in terms of ambivalence: what Marcel discovers is that he can feel hostile towards that which is the source of goodness – his mother – precisely because that source can be withheld from him. He has to learn to bear the independence from him of that which is good in life, and he has to learn to bear the ambivalence of his feelings about that source. For Klein, being grown up is in large part about being able to negotiate those feelings of ambivalence engendered by the very recognition in question.

Part of Marcel's problem, of course, is that he comes to see his mother as limited. According to Sigmund Freud, in his short but very powerful essay 'Family Romances', and in a series of thoughts echoed in the work of Klein, this is one of the most deeply painful moments in life. The child starts out, he says, believing his parents to be 'his only authority and the source of all he believes in. However,' Freud goes on,

as the child develops intellectually he cannot help gradually getting to know the category to which his parents belong. He gets to know other parents, compares them with his own, and so becomes entitled to doubt the incomparable and unique status once attributed to them. Small events in the child's life which induce in him a mood of dissatisfaction provide him with an occasion to start criticizing his parents, and the knowledge he now has, that other parents are in many respects to be preferred, allows him to support this attitude ... The reason for such a reaction is obviously the feeling of being slighted. There are all too many occasions when a child is slighted, or at least feels that he has been slighted, and that he does not completely have his parents' love ... ('Der Familienroman der Neurotiker': 227–8)

The description fits Marcel perfectly.

Even if we do not accept all the details of their respective accounts, between them Freud and Klein put their finger on an important truth: we are pretty much all like Marcel. That is, whilst there may be some exceptions, in the main we all want our mother – or, more generally, our parents, and siblings if we have them; in short, our family – to give us the kind of love and goodness that Marcel felt so agonizingly present in that withheld goodnight kiss. The inevitable failure of our parents and siblings to give us this can make the family a scene of trouble and pain, even though it can be a place of warmth and security.

And the failure is indeed inevitable, since, as George Eliot puts it, '[w]e are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves' (Middlemarch: 243). The family is the first place where we grasp the independence of those around us. As we learn that they give us what is good but can also withdraw that goodness at any time – by choice or otherwise – we also learn that we are not the centre of the world, that the self must accept privation as central to its existence. The family, which seems to promise so much, indeed the denial of that truth, becomes the place where it is played out.

Idiots and Jesters

The truth to which these reflections point is that we never grow up. We are always potentially capable of slipping back into the mode of behaviour of the child who stamps his feet in anger and frustration because he does not get what he wants from his parents.

I was reminded of this recently when I saw a bickering couple at a railway station, on the opposite platform. Shouting at each other, they were evidently extremely angry with each other, and then she walked away from him, down the platform: 'I don't give a damn about you!' was her message. He trailed after her, yelling at her all the while. I remembered times when, as a child, I would walk away from my mother in this way, damning her and yet needing her to follow after me, and I saw in this couple the repetition of a child's reaction to his or her parent. And we have all, in various ways, been one member of that couple, walking off or standing watching as the other departs, aware of the idiocy of what we are doing and yet seemingly incapable of stopping ourselves from doing it. Perhaps that is the key point: we should never forget our own idiocy.

We should remember how absurd we are, because by doing so we might be better able to manage those moments in which we regress to the condition of children. We should try to laugh at our own idiocies – that might well diffuse those situations in which, like the couple at the station, we spoil things for ourselves and others and achieve nothing. We always secretly believe that we are the tragic hero of our own conflicts. But think of yourself as a jester instead. Then you might find that you achieve a better balance between what you want from another person and what you actually get from him or her.

Heading off Guilt

Those who are moved to write of their parents often express a deep sense of loss, of pain – of what Franz Kafka, in his unsent Letter to my Father (recently translated under the title Dearest Father), called being 'inwardly wounded'. Kafka uses the phrase in the context of an account of a moment 'from his earliest years'. He writes:

I was moaning continually in the night for water, certainly not because I was thirsty, but probably partly in order to irritate, partly for pleasure. After you had issued several threats, but to no avail, you took me out of bed and carried me onto the veranda and left me standing there alone for a while in my shirt in front of the closed door. I do not say that that was wrong; perhaps it was at that moment the only way to get some peace in the night. But I do mean by recalling this to describe your way of bringing me up and its effect on me. Afterwards, I was, indeed, at that time very obedient, but it left me inwardly wounded. Given my nature I could never reconcile the normality of my pointless crying for water with the extraordinary terribleness of being carried outside. Years later I still suffered from the tormenting idea that the huge man, my father, the highest authority, could, for almost any reason, come in the night and carry me from my bed onto the veranda – and that I was thus nothing to him. (Brief an den Vater: 10)


Excerpted from How to Deal with Adversity by Christopher Hamilton. Copyright © 2014 Christopher Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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Meet the Author

Dr. Christopher Hamilton is Senior Lecturer in the Philosophy of Religion at King's College London. He is the author of Middle Age, part of the Art of Living series published by Acumen books in 2009, and Living Philosophy, published by Edinburgh University Press, 2001.

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