An Anti-Fragile Life Demands Setbacks

The great wildfires of 1988 in Yellowstone National Park destroyed over one third of the park after it had been long overdue for a large fire. As a result of the lessons learned, fire management has changed dramatically since then: Natural fires are usually only monitored since they are considered helpful in reducing dead underwood and therefore large-scale fires. People realized that Yellowstone NP has the ability to self-regulate and that the park even gains strength from natural wild fires sporadically occurring.

The analogy to nature

A few species of trees have adapted themselves perfectly to bush fires. In particular conifer trees can withstand small fires by growing deep roots and thickening their trunks over time. Unlike faster growing bushes and trees, conifers consume a lot of energy and time before they outpace their «competitors» eventually. Some conifers, such as Sequoias in Northern California, grow as high as one hundred and twenty meters and get as old as thousands of years (see the picture at the start).

Once a bush fire hits the forest, conifers will endure longer periods of suffering than other plants. Having taken a longer path to growth – the «roundabout approach» – has made them firm and lasting. And they won’t tap into their reserves until they are forced to do so due to suffering. Coniferous trees are the epitome of «anti-fragility» – growing stronger because of bad events.

Life is suffering, and even demands setbacks

Some things in life will not always work out as planned – sometimes for the time being, often for good. This is part of «being». In fact, the subject of suffering is not only a central motif of all major religions and thus cultural inheritance, but it also embodies a deep understanding of life beyond religious beliefs.

There will be days when we have to withstand tragedy and loss, just like conifers do when strong winds and even lightning strike them. As a matter of fact, there is some truth in Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote «What does not kill me makes me stronger». Nature illustrates that anti-fragility is a reality; and since we are all part of nature, that insight, while it may not give us a deeper meaning of life, can at least supply us with more strength to overcome the hardship of life and to flourish again eventually. The conifers standing upright in a manner that defies any catastrophe may serve as an example of how one can achieve that.