Book Review: The Gift of Adversity by Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D.

You might ask yourself “why would I want to read a book about adversity?” Perhaps, for me, it was because I grew up with a lot of it. My father died when I was seven, and my first stepfather passed away during my sophomore year in college. So the subtitle of Norman Rosenthal’s book, The Unexpected Benefits of Life’s Difficulties, Setbacks, and Imperfections intrigued me enough to crack the cover. Adversity in life is unavoidable, so I wondered what Dr. Rosenthal could teach me that life’s lessons had not already imparted. Obviously there are many kinds of adversity from bad luck to serious crises, from poor decisions to true evil. Norman Rosenthal has experienced many of them, and if he hasn’t his patients have. In 52 short chapters he takes you through his life and in each one identifies a key message.

Dr. Rosenthal is a well-educated and wise man, whose writing is simple yet eloquent.  He grew up in South Africa during apartheid, the child of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Educated as a physician, he came to the United States to finish his training.  After 20 years at the National Institute of Mental Health, he was forced out by new leadership, an adverse situation that forced him to examine his own life and was part of the impetus for the writing of this book. This book is essentially a memoir of his life and his experiences both doing research and treating patients as a psychiatrist.

He divides the book into Youth, Adulthood, Heroes, and Farewells, and throughout the book pays homage to his father, who was clearly a profound influence on him.  In the chapter Trouble With My Father, he talks about his father’s post-traumatic stress disorder, his eccentricities, and his probable depression.  He recounts the sadness he felt after writing this chapter, and quotes Oscar Wilde, writing, “first we love our parents; then we judge them; and sometimes we forgive them.”  Dr. Rosenthal goes on to say, “ if we are lucky…we come to understand them, and with that last step, in the maturity of adulthood, we recapture some of the love we had for them so many years before.” His lesson in this chapter is that “Understanding is the key to love.”

Not all of the chapters moved me, although the lessons Dr. Rosenthal pointed out at the end of each one were certainly relevant. For example, he talks about Reciprocity in Relationships, something that is a common topic in therapy both for children, couples, teens and adult individuals. The author uses examples that occurred in his work at his clinical trials company and I think that he could have chosen better.  Yet his boxed idea at the end of the chapter “teach your children the importance of reciprocity at an early age – in conversation, collaboration, and materially” is so important.  Not only can we teach children these lessons verbally, but we can also teach them by how we manage our own relationships.

One of my favorite chapters was the one on Taking Responsibility. He quotes the Dalai Lama who said, “When you think everything is someone else’s fault, you will suffer a lot.” The chapter then goes on to talk about people who enter psychotherapy for problems that they attribute to repeated bad luck or the behavior of others.  When people think this way, they feel that what happens in their life is the result of fate, and do not become empowered to have control over their own destiny. Dr. Rosenthal goes on to discuss how painful it is to admit to our flaws and mistakes in judgment, but points out that this pain is still less than the consequences of not taking responsibility as that evolves over time. The lack of taking responsibility can be seen in relationships, in child-parent interactions, in friendships and in the work environment when something goes wrong. It is important in life to own what you do, make amends for your mistakes, and ask for forgiveness. When we own up to our errors and misjudgments, when we acknowledge our behavior, we are a step closer to successfully relating to others.

I enjoyed this book and found it meaningful. It can be read in short bursts as each chapter stands alone (a plus for someone who often falls asleep reading at night!). There is something in it for everyone, and if you cannot relate to one story or memory, you will likely be able to connect to another.

This book presents lessons from adversity and through those lessons helps us to identify and value our strengths – a great book for someone looking for that silver lining in the dark clouds of life.