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Character Strengths in Adversity

By Ruth Pearce

Noone has the right answer currently to our curious questions like “what will happen when the pandemic ends?”, “what should we do to prevent/contain this?”, “how can I cope with this?” Very few, if any of us have been through anything like this in our lifetimes. What are we to do in the face of such personal, professional, emotional and financial upheaval? Where do we start? We are all doing our best. How can we be our best?

Character Strengths Use in the Past

It turns out that thinking about how we have handled past challenges – even ones that seem unrelated – can help fortify us against new challenges. Remembering when we used our strengths mindfully can help us to do so again. That is why I am sharing this story from a lady in Iceland who was on a course with me.

“Last week … my husband had a heart attack. He is a strong man and came walking home from work in the morning after being there for an hour or two. He said he felt heaviness in his chest and pain in the jaws and left shoulder, did I think he should go and see a doctor? I thought so (!) I drove him to the hospital near us. He was immediately put on an ambulance, … and we went to Reykjavík “on blue lights”. In the ambulance we stayed relatively calm, talked and joked. … But I will never forget the moment when I lost that calm and the reality of the situation became clear: I looked forward … out of the front window and saw the biggest traffic road in Reykjavík, Miklabraut - empty. The police had closed all intersections with police cars with blinking blue lights. He was treated for 100% and 90% blocked coronary arteries, and in less than an hour it was all over and he sat laughing in his hospital bed.

In the meantime, I had first collapsed, shaking …with tears as soon as he was in the hands of the doctors; then I sat and waited in a quiet room. I didn´t have my phone. I decided to be in the moment even if this was a hard one and sat down and turned my chair to the window and had another “moment” I think I will never forget. Out of the window I saw Hallgrímskirkja one of the defining buildings in Reykjavík. In the foreground were big bristlecone pines; the sun was coming up (the time was between 11 and 12, (when) it is still mostly dark in Iceland this time of year). Lovely winter light, yellow, pink, light blue, cold but beautiful light.

It started snowing, these rare big snowflakes which we call “hundslappadrífa” in Icelandic (“dogs-paws-snow”), and even more rare: no wind! The snowflakes floated down calmly. It was such a powerful yet peaceful moment, I felt like the universe had made this scene just for me to calm me down. I accepted it, looked inwards and tried to sort out what I was feeling. Even if I was worried, I trusted he was in the best hands. Then he came up, laughing as I said, and since then I have been overwhelmed with the feeling of gratitude. I am thankful to all the people who took part, in the health care, the ambulance drivers, the people who stopped at the intersection. I appreciate that the weather was harmless and the roads almost clean … I am glad I was home when my mate came home, or he might have had a nap instead of seeking help … I am even grateful for not having my phone. If I had, {I would have] missed the wonderful window moment and made myself and others worry about the situation. Instead, I called everyone afterwards with good news.

…Surprisingly the strengths that I think we used most were humor, hope, love and not least perseverance. The strength hope I mistook for a long time for "being cool", or perhaps being ignorant of danger. I on the other hand saw danger and catastrophes everywhere. One of my highest strengths is love of learning and it shone through all the time. I have read all the papers he got home with him, asked his doctors about things and googled others. Perhaps fairness (my strongest, perhaps even a core value) shows in thanking everybody, not just the one who did the operation? And perhaps what I call hope, is really judgement, he does not panic because it is not necessary?

Conclusion. This experience left me, happier, more grateful and even more joyful. I appreciate my husband more. Our relationship is deeper and more precious to me now that I understand his and mine strengths better.”

This story is something I use in workshops for strengths spotting When the story is shared, most groups see about 15 to 18 character strengths in the story – even though the author herself focuses on four or five!

  1. What’s your strengths story?
  2. How will it help you get through these challenging times?
  3. What strengths do you most love in your loved ones?