- Written by Walt Sonneville Walt Sonneville
In her book, Destiny of the Republic, historian Candice Millard offers a remarkably profound observation attributed to President James Garfield:
“I have sometimes thought that we cannot know any man thoroughly well while he is in perfect health. As the ebb-tide discloses the real lines of the shore and the bed of the sea, so feebleness, sickness, and pain bring out the real character of a man.”
That statement invites reflection about all among us who experience any number of adversities.
Consider some who have never known normal health, such as being born sightless or losing vision in early childhood. Several went on to become well-known pianists. They include Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, George Shearing, and Alex Templeton. The songs in their hearts inspire us no less than their musical talent.
We have seen movie actors showing how, in their real lives, they have responded to physical disabilities. Harold Russell, who lost both hands, played an Oscar-winning role in the memorable movie The Best Years of Our Lives. Later he went on to become the national commander of AMVETS.
Christopher Reeve, who played the movie role of Superman, became paraplegic as a result of an accident but maintained an irrepressible spiritual strength. He authored two books, the titles of which attest to this strength: Nothing is Impossible and Still Me.
Actor Michael J. Fox started a foundation bearing his name after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The titles of three books he authored subsequent to his diagnosis reveal much about his attitude: Lucky Man: A Memoir; Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist; and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future: Twists and Turns and Lessons Learned.
Historical figures who rose above their physical or mental demons have demonstrated that will often triumphs over won’t. Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Isaac Newton, and Harriet Tubman all displayed symptoms of epilepsy.
Despite suffering from a depression, which he called his “black dog,” Winston Churchill led his country through World War II. After the war, he “tamed” his black dog by returning to the writing of books and painting a few hundred artworks—mostly tranquil landscapes.
There are many celebrities of our time that lived with depression but successfully tamed their black dogs. They include astronaut Buzz Aldrin; J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series; television personality Mike Wallace; and football quarterback Terry Bradshaw.
Whole classes of people deserve recognition for being points of light within a community. African-American women who raised their children, despite the material impoverishment and denial of education thrust upon them, provide one example.
Other examples are spouses who remain committed to a severely disabled family member. Children with cancer demonstrate a courage that, in the words of the American Cancer Society, “humble their parents and caregivers.”
What is it that compels some of those seriously afflicted to become beacons for others? Helen Keller, born deaf and blind, provides her explanation:
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
On the battlefield, combat reveals our base character under extreme stress and fear. The contest of life is fought, metaphorically, on a broader battlefield. Most of us will not avoid assaults on our health, disruption in family relationships, unemployment, or victimization by criminals.
To survive intact, we need faith in ourselves and the leadership of those who can show us the way.