Had Stephen Hawking given up on life when he was diagnosed with a motor neurone disorder at 21, we would have perhaps never known about black holes and quantum gravity. Nor would our senses been bathed in the beauty of Für Elise, had it not been for Beethoven creating the symphonies and sonatas despite being deaf.
Illnesses and disabilities are part of being human. The adversity that emerges from a life-threatening illness can leave us feeling utterly defeated. Yet, extraordinary stories of indomitable resilience can arise from such predicaments. What brings about this resilience, you ask? It is the sheer unrelenting nature of the human spirit that empowers us to crush the challenges that stand in our way.
A world of infinite possibilities
Physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with the daunting Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) when he was pursuing his PhD at the University of Cambridge. For this unpromising doctoral student, future looked bleaker with this diagnosis as the doctors gave him just two years to live.
When we look at Hawking’s battle with ALS, his optimism and thirst for knowledge shine through. One significant incident strengthened his will to live. As he was undergoing tests at the hospital, Professor Hawking saw a young boy die of Leukaemia. Recalling this he once said, “Whenever I feel sorry and miserable, I make it a point to think of that little boy who died that day.”
Braving the odds
It is ironic that Sigmund Freud–the father of psychoanalysis–suffered from depression, anxiety attacks and fatigue. In an attempt to alleviate depression, he started snorting cocaine. In Ernest Jones’ The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, Freud says he took cocaine which induced euphoria. He then sought music and literature to match the feeling. However, after learning about the dangerous impact of cocaine on the human brain, he gave it up.
Eventually, he leaned towards self-analysis which proved to be effective, but the best antidote for Freud turned out to be the recognition he received. His work on dreams and sexuality was acknowledged and he was asked to lead an intellectual group.
Where words fail, music speaks
Wouldn’t it be most unfortunate if a musician couldn’t hear his own compositions? Music prodigy and composer Ludwig van Beethoven’s life depicted this cruel irony of nature. The faculty of hearing is a musician’s sword. Tragically, a debilitating case of tinnitus turned Beethoven deaf. His struggle with deafness is as well-known as his Heroic Symphony. Not being able to derive inspiration from other composers’ work, not being able to express his thoughts, fears and hopes, and the struggle to cope with the monstrosity of his condition and its impact on his life’s purpose pushed him to contemplate suicide.
However, what made Beethoven extraordinary, apart from his innate virtuosity, was his tenacity and spirit to survive such an extremity. With sheer perseverance, he turned utter adversity into the greatest advantage. Because he couldn’t hear his contemporaries, he went on to create the most unaffected, original work.
On this note, it’s worth recalling a popular anecdote: By the time Beethoven performed the debut of one of his greatest works–Symphony 9, he was completely deaf. When the performance was over, Beethoven received thunderous applause from the audience which he was unaware of. The soloist had to prompt him to turn to the audience, creating one of the most moving moments in the history of music.
Such stories of extraordinary inner strength have created history. Men and women with mighty hearts and lofty spirits have cast their imprints on untrodden paths and left us a legacy that shines on as generations have come and gone and aeons have passed us by.