Wisdom through adversity

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

Friedrich Nietzsche stretched a bit when he claimed that which does not kill us makes us “stronger.”

There is ample evidence, though, that traversing adversity makes us “wiser.” The trials and travails of the last two and a half years have made more Americans more critical of government claims. We’re a long way from being a bunch of geniuses but the Overton Window of policy possibilities may be shifting back towards liberty and rationality or in other words the wisdom of America’s Founders and Framers. And a new crop of wiser political leaders may be emerging.

One of my favorite studies linking life adversity to wisdom acquisition is Monika Ardelt’s 1998 article “Social Crisis and Individual Growth: The Long-Term Effects of the Great Depression” (Journal of Aging Studies 12, 3: 291-314). The study followed the experiences of 81 women and 39 men born in Berkeley, California circa 1900 through the Great Depression, up to 1968-69. Those who successfully managed to overcome significant adversity during the Depression exhibited more wisdom, as measured by recognized leadership abilities and coping skills, than did their cohorts who had an easier time of it.

One individual not in the study but born down the hill from Berkeley in 1900 was Wilma Soss, the subject of the new book Fearless, which I co-authored with Bucknell’s Jan Traflet. Soss’s story neatly complements Ardelt’s findings. By the 1950s, Soss was the leader of an important financial literacy nonprofit, a leading corporate activist “gadfly,” and a pioneer broadcast financial journalist. Her analysis of economic trends was exceptionally wise, so a million households tuned in to listen to her nationally syndicated radio show, “Pocketbook News,” each week.

Don’t feel bad if you have never heard of Soss because too few have. She was effectively “canceled” after her death in 1986 because she was a lifelong Republican who adored America and especially its system of free enterprise. Even Wikipedia cannot countenance giving her story any attention because it runs directly counter to the narrative taught in the nation’s government schools, the story of women being oppressed and kept out of the economy until the 1960s feminists came along and the all mighty federal government passed a law. Soss proves that story to be out-of-context disinformation!

Not that Soss had an easy life. Far from it. She was born during a bubonic plague outbreak in San Francisco but missed the Big Quake because her father mysteriously disappeared (death? divorce?). Later, her maternal grandmother was killed, or killed herself, at Soss’s birthday party! Soss flunked out of her first college and a bus ran over her mother, who was deaf. Four of her male mentors died at key moments in life, one by suicide. After the Great Crash of 1929, a trustee lost the small inheritance her maternal grandfather had left for her.

Only two things supported Soss throughout her life, her husband Joe and her degree from Columbia’s School of Journalism. Joe supported her various careers, which spanned print and broadcast journalism, public relations, and corporate activist and investor. If he seemed quite liberal for the time, he was, but keep in mind that she earned more than he did most years!

Covid, the lockdowns, the suppression of free speech, the senseless and anti-scientific mandates, the increase in all-cause mortality, the rise of corporate wokism, and the war in Ukraine are all horrible and I wish they never happened. But it’s heartening to think that they may produce the next Wilma Soss, and indeed a new generation of business and government leaders wiser than the current batch.


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Robert E. Wright
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