Most of us go through life not knowing or finding meaning to our existence or why we are here. We worry about trivial items, stress over irrelevant consequences and often act without empathy or kindness. Successful people, like Stephen Hawking, have used adversity to find purpose and success. Hawking used his illness to find meaning and solve some of humanity’s most complex problems.
What makes these successful people different? How do some people find the strength to pull themselves up after experiencing devastating personal circumstances? Shortly after I began my graduate studies at Imperial College London, Stephen Hawking delivered a lecture about black holes and the quantum world. I was always incredibly impressed with his life story.
Hawking credits his disease for pushing him to excel in science: “Before my condition was diagnosed, I had been very bored with life,” he said. “There had not seemed to be anything worth doing.”
In his lifetime, Hawking suffered physical and emotional obstacles that would typically break most people. He married and divorced twice, was estranged from three children and gradually lost control of his body. He wholly used a wheelchair in 1971 at age 29 and lost the ability to speak in 1985, requiring 24-hour nursing care. Stephen died in 2018, after his recognition as of history’s greatest minds. He was the author of fifteen books, including A Brief History in Time, Universe in a Nutshell, and The Grand Design.
Famous people overcoming adversity
Stories of famous people overcoming severe adversity are well-known and often characterized as extraordinary, unlike regular people who have congruent life stories however largely go unnoticed. While in fact, millions of people face adversity — disability, sickness, heartbreak — each day and continue to move ahead with their lives, bruised but rarely broken. They are ordinary people — co-workers, neighbors and acquaintances — who face tragedy and disappointments privately and with difficulty.
Ordinary people turning adversity into triumph
Sadly, setbacks happen in our lives. Each person chooses how they handle the adversity in their lives. Let’s learn from the following examples of those who use their experiences to make better lives for themselves:
Cheryl Hunter. While traveling overseas, she was drugged, abducted and brutally raped at age 18. In a 2020 People magazine interview, she noted, “Once something has happened that’s jarring, that’s traumatic, that’s unwanted and unexpected, there is no getting back to life the way it was. The door has been opened and can never be closed again. There’s no unringing a bell.”
Cheryl now works as a motivational speaker, encouraging others to use forgiveness and acceptance to reconcile the scars of tragedy. Today, she counsels victims to integrate lessons from their experiences.
Isaac Lidsky. A former child actor in the television series Saved by the Bell: The New Class, Isaac lost his sight at age 25. According to him, losing his eyesight showed him that we shape our reality by what we think. He counsels that we can overcome obstacles and tragedies by choosing to make our reality. He said, “blindness gave me vision.” Today, Aaron serves as CEO of Florida’s largest residential construction services company.
Marla Runyon. At age 9, she developed Stargardt’s Disease, a form of macular degeneration that left her legally blind. With limited peripheral vision, Marla discovered her passion for athletics in high school. She qualified for the Olympic team in 1996 for the heptathlon but did not make the team.
Undeterred, Marla won a gold medal in the Paralympics, her second of 5 total Paralympic gold medals. In 2000, she became the first blind athlete to qualify for the US Olympic team in the 1,500-meter event. She placed 8th and returned to compete in 2004. Back problems and surgery ended her track career. Marla earned a second Master’s degree in special education and began teaching the blind in schools in Oregon.
The warriors and heroes among us
You meet people daily who are coping with horrendous circumstances and uncertain outcomes. Most struggle through the pain and fears alone. Few events are as devastating as the day of a diagnosis of cancer, yet through the adversity, we often see heroes who use the illness as a catalyst to change their life path and, in the process, become a beacon of hope for all.
Doctors discovered Mia Brister’s stage four Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when she was 24. Mia faced a series of twelve chemo treatments, each an infusion of toxic drugs followed by several weeks of recovery.
During the treatments, Mia realized that most patients endure their pain alone with no one to share their feelings. She began reaching out to other patients, making friends and sharing her experiences to break down the walls of loneliness. When she learned of the difficulties many had finding or buying attractive head covers, she began to sew colorful hats and scarves for others in treatment.
When I met Mia in early 2022 and was struck immediately by her kindness, I knew of her story. I had heard about Warrior Expressions Foundation, a non-profit she had formed dedicated to inspiring and empowering people who have lost their hair due to cancer treatment. Mia purchases and sends bespoke headscarves to cancer patients across the country, all free of charge.
“I love to help people,” Mia says. “My cancer diagnosis allowed me to find myself and discover my true passion and purpose…I’m very realistic with whoever I’m talking to while they’re going through their journey, but I also try to give them the positives because it’s a very dark experience. I like to help them out of that darkness as much as possible.”
Mia’s since made a remarkable recovery and continues to change the lives of countless cancer patients across the United States. She is an inspiration to all.
Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist, spent three years in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps. His parents and wife were murdered in the Nazi concentration camps. After his experience, he realized that he could help others find meaning in their lives through work, deeds, and love for others or in hopeless situations. His Man’s Search for Meaning, written after his rescue, has helped millions to survive and rebuild worthwhile lives after tragedy. Since its release, it has sold millions of copies worldwide and helped countless others find meaning in their lives.
You can be many things in this life, but the most crucial thing is being kind. If in doubt, be a Stephen Hawking, be a Mia Brister and no matter what, never give up.