What David Brooks Missed

There’s a crucial element in the formation of character that doesn’t seem to make it into the cool books.

Hamas and Israel continue at war. Ebola claims the lives of over 700 people. A Maryland driver cuts you off. Again. It doesn’t take a pessimist to see that the world can be dark, and suffering might be the only experience guaranteed to everyone, regardless of age, race, wealth, or location.

But is there an upside?

Last week David Brooks wrote in his column about the importance of habits, opportunity, exemplars, and standards in the formation of character. These interventions, or may I say cultural norms, create opportunities for children and adults to gain more self-control, grit, and perseverance, all qualities psychologists, educators, academics, and parents believe will help a person get ahead and do well in life.

I agree with this framework, and the avenues he mentions are excellent. I do wonder, though, if there is an important aspect of character building missing: suffering. Or better put, how does each of the character building avenues (habits, opportunity, exemplars, and standards) predicate upon or respond to suffering? Is it necessary to suffer in order to develop strong character?

Back in the northwoods of Wisconsin, I worked at a camp where the director often wished backpackers well by saying, “I hope it rains.” I thought he was out of his mind. Rain? The absolute last thing I wanted on a camping trip with eight year olds was rain. But he had a reasonable rationale—the kids will become better people sloshing through the rain. They’ll remember this moment, and if they learn to perseverance and have fun regardless, maybe they’ll be able to handle harder things in life. I never fully embraced his perspective, but as life becomes more shadowed, maybe he was right.

I just finished reading Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimimanda Adichie. It’s a breathtaking book and desperately sad. The Biafran War, which I am ashamed by my ignorance of, took one million lives from famine and fighting. Adichie doesn’t hold back on her characters and inflicts on them trying realities of loss, separation, and uncertainty. Some characters change personalities. Others become bitter. Others emerge with more capacity for love and forgiveness. Others run away. Others pass away.

If I were to venture a guess on the book’s view of suffering, it would be: one, suffering exists and you can’t run away; and two, suffering will change you. There’s no escaping it. Reading Brooks in light of these emphases, I can’t help but think that we should couple character and suffering together. Suffering builds character; Character activates suffering to build rather than destroy us.

There are others with far deeper thoughts in this vein. But as we think about how to “Give Back” to society, it may do us some good to recognize that society (and the conflicts and problems of society) will change us. And that’s not always such a bad thing.

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