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Overcoming adversity often brings out the best in people

I wasn't in Grand Island the evening of June 3, 1980. I was a Grand Island resident, but out of town that night and for the next several days. I couldn't have gotten into the city if I had wanted to.

To this day, I don't know if I felt guilty for not experiencing the adversity that other Islanders did, or if I felt lucky for not having to go through that ordeal. Probably both.

Five days after the tornadoes hit, I re-entered the city and was flabbergasted at what I saw. Like everyone else in the city and hundreds from outside Grand Island, I offered whatever help I could.

I'm sure the experience built character in Grand Islanders. After the tragedy, many people expressed gratitude for their lives and families. Some mentioned that the tornadoes helped them get their priorities in order.

Adversity does that to people. Many, if not most of us, romp through life in search of "things" and experiences that give us temporary satisfaction and allow us to have fun.

Perhaps too often those are not our stated priorities: family, friends, peace of mind, spirituality and the chance to pursue our true passions, whatever they may be.

Every time I think of adversity, I think of my late grandmother. I don't know if she encountered more or less adversity than anyone else, but I do know she had her share.

And I know she died a peaceful and fulfilled woman at age 88. She had taken many of the blows that life sometimes delivers to us, and had become a better person because of them.

Every piece of adversity only made her stronger, kinder, more understanding and more aware of her priorities in life.

She lost an infant sister during the flu epidemic of 1919. Toward the end of her life, I remember her recalling her little sister's burial. A headstone never marked the spot -- just a tree.

Like many Midwesterners, she suffered during the Depression but came out of that decade with greater values. I never asked her much about the 1930s, but I think I saw some of the tough years in her face.

She lost her first husband at a young age. She remarried and became a farm wife, encountering new trials and tribulations.

In 1966, she lost her only son to a gunshot wound -- not in Vietnam, but in Los Angeles. Fifteen years later, her second husband died in his 60s of cancer.

After all that adversity, she still carried a never-ending smile, provided endless words of encouragement and was always trying to restore faith and confidence in her family and friends.

She would occasionally express annoyance over something trivial, but only for a moment. In the scheme of life, those things were never worth fretting over for more than a minute or two.

I sometimes wonder how some people can be so positive, so buoyant, so at peace after living through so much adversity. Knowing people like that, it seems silly to grouse while waiting in a long line, to cuss in traffic jams, to be so preoccupied with keeping up with the Joneses and so intent on obtaining new gadgets and other "things" to make us happy.

Many, many Grand Islanders learned a lot about themselves and life from the tornado nightmare of 1980. And many, many people like my grandmother grow emotionally and spiritually through great adversity in their lives.

Overcoming adversity is something to be admired in people. Overcoming adversity and becoming a more loving, compassionate person because of it is something even more incredible.

Pete Letheby is associate editor for The Independent.