Does Suffering Strengthen Character?

Q: I know you, like Ayn Rand, write about the “virtue of self-interest” and contend that self-fulfillment is both moral and rationally healthy. Don’t you think there are situations where self-denial is a virtue and is, indeed, psychologically healthy? Can’t self-denial make you stronger?

A: No way! There is never, ever a situation in which denying something of value leads to greater personal strength. This mistaken idea can come from only one of two notions: (1) The totally false, but widely accepted, notion of self-sacrifice or altruism, in the sense Ayn Rand wrote about—in which giving up of values is defined as virtue and, in some sense, a ‘strength’; or (2) an incorrect definition of values. What I mean by “incorrect definition of values” is accepting something as a value which is in fact, objectively speaking, against your interest. I’ll start with a simple case, although one not relevant to most people personally. Let’s say you ‘value’ crack cocaine. If one holds that as a value, then of course it leads to greater strength to finally deny it as a value and eliminate it from your life. But this doesn’t affirm the notion that SOME denial of values leads to greater strength; it merely reaffirms the notion that eliminating something that might FEEL or SEEM like a value (as crack cocaine does to an addict) but ISN’T (objectively) a value leads to greater strength. This isn’t a case for ‘giving up’ values; it’s a case for achieving values and ONLY values—not ‘anti-values’ or non-values.

The implication of all this is that anything that IS a value, objectively speaking, will always strengthen and enhance your life. You ought to respond by treasuring that value; fighting for it; enjoying it; or whatever term is applicable to the particular value in question.

The key is that you choose values that really are in the interest of your life. So long as you do, your life and character will always be stronger for it. If you find a conflict between the two, then it’s time to look at the value itself and whether it really is something that advances your life.