Do traumas, tragedies, and difficulties make you stronger?
I say: NO. It’s not difficulty that makes people stronger. What makes you strong are the habits of rationality and serenity which make difficulty bearable in the first place. You’re better because of these traits, if you possess them. When and if difficulty arises, you can cope and survive. Without these traits, you’d be less able to cope.
People like to find meaning in their pain. When the pain is caused by their own actions, some people like to rationalize the problems they created by saying, “It’s God’s will” or: “It made me stronger.” When pain or misfortune occurs that isn’t of one’s own making, people still sometimes
like to find an explanation for why the pain served a purpose. “At least it makes me stronger.” This is less true than it used to be, because in the past our culture really did emphasize survival, autonomy and independence. Today’s it’s almost the opposite. The cardinal values today are feeling, expressing your emotions in front of others, and being vulnerable. We’ve gone from an ethic of independence to an ethic of conspicuous compassion, which isn’t a good thing. Even so, people are always looking for ways to explain things.
A person who’s strong, rational and serene — my definition of psychological competence — will fare well whether he encounters multiple misfortunes or very few. Think of a ship built to withstand high seas and heavy storms; or an airplane built to withstand freezing temperatures, high altitudes and strong winds. Is the great plane or ship made stronger by those particularly bad storms or seas, if they’re encountered? Of course not. But they are better able to withstand them than they otherwise would be.
People sometimes say: “My childhood was awful. It was traumatic. But it made me more independent.” This might be true. But it doesn’t follow that it’s better to have a traumatic childhood than a loving or reasonable one. It’s always better to have a more loving and reasonable childhood. “But the trauma made me cope with a difficult world.” No, it’s not your past that creates you. YOU create you. By shaping your mind into someone who can think and survive, you’re doing yourself a great favor. A child raised by rational parents will more likely do this than one who isn’t. However, one who isn’t can grow up and appreciate the absence of these qualities — and work to develop them for him- or herself.
Was America made better and stronger by the Great Depression? Absolutely not. It was a terrible time for nearly everyone who went through it. Human beings hate to go backwards, and for the United States it was a time of regression. Are people who endured Hurricane Katrina better for it? Or people who escaped the scene of 9/11 better for it? Again, I say no. You can learn from catastrophes and be stronger from the learning, but catastrophes are not necessary in order to think. It’s much easier to think without that kind of stress. People who “need” disasters in order to think and learn are not doing enough logical and accurate thinking in the first place. They don’t need earthquakes, volcanoes or illnesses in order to progress; they merely need more rational thought.
Some people like pain and trauma — in a twisted sort of way that they’ll never admit — because they like being either the victim or the caretaker. Two types of personalities, martyrs and rescuers, frankly thrive on disasters. This applies to headline-making disasters, but also to the sorts of disasters and difficulties that can come up in private, everyday life. Some people moved to tears by their pain enjoy the attention and the sense of being considered a victim (a cardinal value in today’s culture) that comes from the disaster. Others, who thrive on control or the sick sense of superiority that comes from being able to rescue or take care of someone in need, like the opportunity to play this role. Of course this is not true of everyone, but it’s true of many. And it feeds the false view that “suffering strengthens character.”
If you’re an abuser, dictator or other causer of trauma, then of course you’ll like to spread the idea that suffering strengthens character. Trauma and pain are what such people perpetuate. They want to rationalize it for you, so they can keep imposing it with a minimum of opposition.
Rather than subscribe to this false belief, it’s better to focus on making your mind as rational, serene and productive/fulfilled as it can possibly become. You’ll enjoy all the days without trauma, and you’ll have fewer of them. When and if you encounter terrible difficulties, you’ll be better equipped to cope with them than you otherwise would be.
The less trauma, difficulty and pain in life — the better. No traditions, dogmas or “self-help” fallacies should ever convince you otherwise.