I have a friend who loves to proclaim, ‘Suffering strengthens character’ whenever anything goes wrong — especially if he caused it. I admit it’s kind of funny (if not a bit annoying), but I totally disagree with the idea. It’s not difficulty that makes us stronger; it’s rational thinking and serenity that help make difficulty bearable. Those traits strengthen character, because when trouble does arise, we’re ready to cope with it.
People have always needed to find meaning in their pain. When the suffering is caused by their actions, some rationalize it by saying, “It’s God’s will,” or, “It made me stronger.” If the misfortune isn’t of one’s own making, people still like to find some purpose that the pain served. This tendency is probably less prevalent than it used to be, because in the past our culture was more concerned with survival and independence. Sadly, it’s much the opposite today. Current values center around feelings, expressing emotions in front of others, and being (or appearing to be) vulnerable. We’ve fallen from an ethic of strength and self-reliance into an ethic of conspicuous compassion. And through it all we’re still looking for ways to explain what happens to us.
A person who is strong, serene and psychologically competent will prevail whether or not he encounters misfortune. A ship is built to withstand high seas and heavy storms. An airplane is constructed to survive altitude and strong winds. Is that ship or plane made stronger by high seas and wind? Of course not. They are designed and built in anticipation of those difficulties.
People sometimes tell me that their childhood was traumatic, and that that made them more independent. This might be true, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s preferable to have a traumatic childhood over a loving one. “But the trauma made me cope with a difficult world,” they’ll argue. No, your past doesn’t create you. YOU create you, by training yourself to think and survive. A child raised by rational parents is more likely to be that way, but one who wasn’t can still appreciate those qualities and work to develop them.
There are all kinds of examples. Was America improved by the Great Depression? Absolutely not. It was a terrible time for nearly everyone. Human beings hate to go backwards, and it was certainly a time of regression. Are people who endured Hurricane Katrina or survived 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 for us to be strong. In fact, it’s easier to develop strength and rationality without being subjected to that kind of stress and danger.
In a twisted sort of way, some people actually thrive on pain and trauma. Why? Because they like being either a victim or a caretaker. Martyrs and emotional rescuer-types thrive on disasters; not only headline-making disasters, but also everyday difficulties. Some people who are moved to tears by their own pain enjoy the attention that comes with victimhood — a prime value in today’s culture (just turn on any daytime TV talk show).
Others thrive on control and the sense of superiority that comes from being able to conspicuously rescue or take care of someone else. Note that I’m referring to the realm of ’emotional rescue,’ and that this has nothing to do with ambulances and fire trucks. All this emotional fawning feeds into the false view that pain is necessary to make us stronger.
Emotional abusers and dictators love to spread the idea that suffering strengthens character. Trauma and pain are what keep them going. And they’ll be delighted to rationalize it for you with words like ‘selfless’ and ‘sacrifice’ so they can keep imposing it with a minimum of opposition. Indeed, those who invoke these words are the ones whose hands are most likely to be outstretched to receive your selflessness and sacrifices.
Immunize yourself against these charlatans by working to make your mind rational, serene and productive. You don’t need suffering to strengthen character. The tranquility that comes from rational thought will bring you day after day without trauma. And when you do encounter difficulties, you’ll be better equipped to cope with them.
Life is not meant to be one ordeal after another. Stand firm against supposed ‘traditions,’ dogmas or self-help fallacies that will try to convince you otherwise.