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Getting the best from the worst

Adnan Shati draws caricatures of kids at a local festival. (Photo by Arlene Anderson)

It seemed like an ordinary day. And then ...

My friend, Adnan, and I were leaving a crowded local cafeteria where we'd just finished lunch. As we stood up, he seized the used napkin from my hand. Passing by a garbage can, he raised his arm and jumped up to make a perfect dunk shot.

"Score!" yelled a nearby teenager who was watching with a grin. Adnan and the teenager exchanged an enthusiastic "thumbs up" and soon everybody around us was smiling. The moment suddenly became extraordinary.

And to think I was just going to throw the napkin away like a regular, average person. But because of my friend's good-humored attitude, the world unexpectedly transformed into a playground.

Adnan hasn't had the luxury to be just an ordinary person. His peaceful childhood in southern Iraq was disrupted by a series of wars during his young adult years.

He escaped various threats in Iraq but was eventually housed in a Pakistani prison and refugee camp, surviving the ordeal by drawing portraits for the guards and teaching English to other prisoners. He eventually came to Minnesota 27 years ago as a refugee. I've never heard anyone say, "I'm so grateful" as often as he does.

Most of us are familiar with PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition of mental and emotional distress following an injury or psychological shock. More recently, researchers are exploring the phenomenon of PTG or "post-traumatic growth," the positive psychological shift that can result from adversity. It goes beyond the bouncing back associated with resilience.

Dealing with obstacles can lead to new perspectives and even higher functioning. No doubt, the effects of trauma certainly still exist but people with PTG do not get paralyzed by them.

The term post-traumatic growth was introduced by scholars Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun. They state that up to 90 percent of people who survive adversity report some aspect of post-traumatic growth such as a deeper appreciation for life, enhanced relationships or peace with life's imperfections.

Some people seem to get all the breaks. Good for them. I can't really relate to that. I've always been most drawn to people who overcome the odds and succeed despite big challenges.

When confronted with difficulties we have choices. Will those adversities defeat us or push us to grow beyond our current limits? Learning occurs when we are repeatedly exposed to stressors. People with PTG are less reactive when troubles arise and they tend to recover faster the next time they occur. The common saying is true: "What doesn't kill us can make us stronger."

Adnan works as a visual artist and high school teacher. When a disadvantaged student recently struggled with his homework, Adnan promised to give him the sweater the student admired if he studied hard and succeeded. The student did well and Adnan literally gave the student the sweater off his back.

Perhaps you are also lucky enough to know someone like this. Adnan is generous and thankful each day. He seems to have boundless ability to see beauty and possibilities wherever he goes. He searches to find the humor in hardship. He is an example of someone who has gotten the best from the worst.

As his friend, I hope it's contagious.

Arlene Anderson

Arlene J. Anderson is a Twin Ports native turned writer, teacher, traveler and speaker on resilience and leadership. She is currently working on her memoir to be released next summer. She believes there is always more music to play and dancing to do.