The “secret weapon” that led the University of Virginia to its first NCAA championship title win is no secret to anyone who has overcome adversity. It’s simply a lesson in resilience.
Virginia, as fans would love to forget, famously entered the men’s NCAA tournament last year as the overall No. 1 seed, only to get knocked out in the first round by a No. 16 seed — the first time in March Madness history. For a world drenched in statistical analyses, the loss was nothing short of humiliating.
Past failure notwithstanding, the team returned a year later, again as a top pick. This time, they fought through to the final round, which had all the earmarks of a proper championship game. A late-game push from Texas Tech forced it into overtime, where Virginia clinched the lead in the final minutes.
How to explain the turnaround from an embarrassing event a year prior?
Virginia coach Tony Bennett said it all in the postgame press conference: “If you learn to use it right — the adversity — it will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn't have gone any other way,” a quote he attributes to a TED Talk his wife shared with him.
In a sense, it’s the principle that propels anyone through the storms of life. The ability to utilize adversity is the hallmark of happy people who make a real difference in their lives and in the lives of others.
George Washington, for example, was not a prodigy general. His army lost again and again, but his perseverance created a free nation on which the foundation of a new republic was built. The Great Depression ravaged families, but their tenacity to endure produced the Greatest Generation.
New battles now grip the nation, from the opioid epidemic to natural disasters to fatherlessness, and each results in tremendous losses. They tear apart families and cripple communities. They inflict pain and place roadblocks along the path to progress. But the country’s ability to bounce back will ultimately make its people stronger.
While it’s difficult to call the present injustices a “painful gift,” as Bennett refers to last year’s defeat, learning to serve others amid adversity and view them with more empathy is a tested way of growing from the pain.
One study, recounted by health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, tracked roughly 1,000 adults and asked them if they had experienced stress in the past year, as well as what amount of time they had spent helping friends and neighbors. The researchers found major stressful experiences increased the risk of dying by 30 percent. On the other hand, stress had no effect on the life expectancy of those who took time caring for others.
“Caring created resilience,” concluded McGonigal. “When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage.”
Service and the courage to persevere is what carries people in their adversity and sees them through to the other side. In light of the country’s social problems, resilience needs to occupy a prominent space in any solution. Programs and institutions have their role to play, but what American people really need are stronger human connections, one-on-one aid and a shared belief that victory after defeat is possible.