In the Bible and Talmud, there are descriptions of people who respond admirably to adversity. In spite of whatever happens, they do not give up; rather they find a way to continue to be optimistic and productive, no matter what the obstacle.
A classic example from the Talmud is Nachum Ish Gamzu. Whenever misfortune struck, he would say, “this too is for the good.” His unyielding optimism made him a role model for many who faced trials and tribulations.
Nachum became blind in his later years. He also lost his hands and feet, and lay in a dilapidated house where his bed was propped up on water jugs to prevent ants from reaching him. Throughout this time, Nachum responded by saying to himself and others that “this is also for the good.”
Mark Watney, the hero of the tense survival drama, The Martian, experiences adversities of a different sort, but his optimism in the face of overwhelming challenges recalls the attitude of Nachum Ish Gamzu. Mark’s story begins on Mars where he is collecting ground samples to bring back to earth. When an intense storm comes in, Hermes Commander Melissa Lewis orders the mission aborted. Regrettably, a piece of flying debris catapults Watney to a location far from the their space ship, and Mark is left behind.
Although the Director of NASA and the rest of the Hermes crew consider Mark dead, we learn that he is still alive. His first challenge is to remove a piece of antenna stuck in his abdomen. His second is to figure out how he can survive with an oxygen supply that is diminishing rapidly. His third challenge is to determine if he has enough food to last for four years since that is how long it will take to launch a rescue mission. As a botanist, he sees possibilities that the average astronaut will not, and so he begins to plant potatoes on a planet whose soil is not designed to grow earth-like vegetables.
NASA engineers soon detect some movement on Mars, and they discover that Mark is still alive. Eventually they establish communication with him, and a rescue plan is devised. Once his crew learns that he is still alive, they volunteer to be part of the rescue team. Although the plan is complicated, risky, and many obstacles need to be overcome, Mark never gives up. He looks at each problem as one solvable problem. He does not allow the complexity of the mission, which involves overcoming multiple challenges, to deter him from trying his best to survive.
Many years later we see Mark lecturing to class of budding astronauts. His words resonate with the wisdom of experience: “At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”
The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, also expresses a similar perspective on confronting life’s challenges. When faced with a problem, what is important is that we begin to address it and look for ways to solve our dilemma. Indeed, all beginnings our difficult, and we are not always able to complete the task given to us. However, our job is to start with all of our strength and concentration to do the best we can. The rest is left to God. This positive approach to life is worth emulating.