Adversity Breeds Strength

Adversity Breeds Strength

You’ve probably heard the saying many times, “adversity breeds strength.” It’s the shorter, more polished version of, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” You hear it in the face of defeat or tragedy. The experience can increase your resolve, drive you to be stronger and often lead to great success in life.

This morning, I had the privilege of attending a session led by Andrew Bennett, a motivational speaker who uses magic to educate and inspire. He shared a story about adversity and strength that was very inspiring for me, so I’d like to re-tell it here, with my apologies to Mr. Bennett for liberal paraphrasing and not asking for permission:

How an elm tree overcame adversityMr. Bennett grew up on a cherry tree farm near Traverse City, MI. On that farm is an old elm tree unlike any other elm tree in the area. The prior owners of the farm, Bennett recounts, raised livestock and kept their bull chained to the tree. It was a heavy iron chain, wrapped around the trunk of the tree and connected to the bull’s collar. The restless bull would walk in a circle around the tree for hours, wearing a path in the ground while the chain was wearing a groove in the tree’s trunk.

When the prior owners sold the farm, they cut the chain and took the bull, leaving a section of chain around the tree trunk. Several years later, the chain has tightened and settled into the groove because the tree has grown. Several more years later, the bark has begun to grow over the chain. Several more years later, the chain has been absorbed into the trunk. Today, a scar is all that remains, but as a child Bennett remembers links of the chain still being visible.

What makes the tree even more unique is that it is one of the few remaining elm trees in Michigan. Approximately 90% of the elm trees in Michigan were wiped out by Dutch elm disease. So how did this particular tree survive? Scientists from Michigan State University have visited Bennett’s farm several times in search of an answer. They believe that the iron absorbed into the tree’s system gave it the strength to resist the disease.

The farm holds mixed memories for Bennett, whose grandfather committed suicide in the barn next to the elm tree. During a return visit, Bennett was staring at the scar on the tree when it suddenly dawned on him – from the tree’s scar came its strength, the ability to survive the worst outbreak of Dutch elm disease the US has ever seen. And so his own emotional scars from his grandfather’s suicide could become his strength. He didn’t have to feel guilt and sadness. His memories of his grandfather, many of them about how his grandfather nurtured his interest in magic, could be leveraged into determination. That determination, in large part, is what drove him to become a successful speaker and magician.

Inspiring, right? He went on to give examples of how this could translate into the workplace, but he didn’t need to. My mind was already coming up with examples on its own. By definition, the best inspirations are those that you can clearly envision. The story made it clear for me in a way that I didn’t need examples. You can bet that the next time I run into adversity, I will remember that scarred elm tree. I will survive the adversity, and I will resolve to be stronger as a result of the experience. Thank you, Mr. Bennett!


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