Making Friends with Life: The Coefficient of Adversity


Yikes! Look out for that wave!

Those folks in Hokusai’s boats are about to experience unavoidably the reality of the phrase that Jean-Paul Sartre borrowed from Gaston Bachelard: the Coefficient of Adversity.   That rather ponderous elocution (he says ponderously) carries within it a powerful clue to a recurring theme on this blog: making friends with life.  Things from lousy weather to an unkind word to a traffic accident can catapult us into victimhood, and enroll us in the “bitch and moan club.”  Eric Berne’s Games People Play featured the game “Ain’t it Awful,”  and it seems that often the conversations one hears are simply strings of complaints.   I sometimes imagine that if some people did not have their list of complaints, they would be absolutely mute.

So how does recognizing the inevitability of a coefficient of adversity temper one’s adversarial stance toward life?  I can think of three avenues of reflection.

First, it is a fundamental tenet in the philosophy of Plato that this material world is one of imperfection.  Whether one wants to follow him out of the cave into the light of perfection is a question for another essay. It does, however, seem clear, as he says in Book V of the Republic, that there is nothing in this world so perfectly beautiful that we can find no element of ugliness; nothing is so good that we can find no negative vantage point.  Combine this with John Stuart Mill’s insight that a part of happiness is “not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing,” and it yields a healing perspective.  “How good does life get?’ leads to “How good do I expect life to get?’ and then “How good do I expect myself to be?” Realizing that a coefficient of adversity is built into the very fabric of life trims the sails of my expectations, and lets me see more clearly the wondrous miracle of what is.  As Wittgenstein said, “Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystery.” Seeing that it is, as it is, can help to liberate us from the illusion of perfection, and to embrace life with its many textures.

Sartre offers a second insight that brings the discussion to a deeper level.  He sees (in Being and Nothingness, Bk 4, Ch 2) that every adversarial element in my life is created by my own perspectives, values, and intentions (in his words, my “self-project”).    For example, I am stuck in a traffic jam.  He calls this a “brute fact,” neither good nor bad.  But if I am on my way to collect a lottery prize, and that is important to me, then the delay can be unbearable.  If, on the other hand, I am on my way to be executed, then the traffic jam becomes a god-send.  Clearly, my life so far has not been filled with lotteries or executions, but even on the mundane level, we can see that a shift of values or perspective can alter the coefficient of adversity in any given situation.  I might find myself seething in a traffic jam, and realize that the ten minutes I lose are not worth a roiling stomach.  My project then shifts from being on time to creating peace of mind, and the coefficient of adversity eases.

This leads to the third reflection: even if I cannot ease the present resistance, Sartre urges us to accept the fact that every coefficient of adversity in our lives is self-created, and thus freely chosen.  The living of life is a package deal, and the art of living consists in weighing the costs and benefits of any given situation.  If the costs are too heavy, we can do our best to change them, or failing that, to leave.  If we do not leave, then our attachment to the benefits is more valuable than the pains, and the only mature option is to buy the whole package with its mixture of sunshine and shadow, blessings and a coefficient of adversity.  This is why Sartre says,  “it is senseless to think of complaining since nothing foreign has decided what we feel, what we live, or what we are.”   Complaining doesn’t change a thing, but claiming responsibility for one’s life opens a luminous path beyond victimhood to a powerful freedom that expresses itself in an unwavering gratitude for life as it is; for life as we are creating it.  As Rumi says, “Be grateful for your life, every detail of it, and your face will come to shine like a sun, and everyone who sees it will be made glad and peaceful.”

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