When it’s too tough for everybody else, it’s just right for me. – Anonymous
In an earlier post, I argued that hardship shapes character. This time, I want to develop that idea further.
Would you believe me if I said you need a battle to fight? An adversary? A foil? Think about it: every great story — in order to be a story at all — has to have conflict. The protagonist finds himself pitted against another man, against nature, against God, or even against himself. The story doesn’t begin until the conflict comes into view.
Ok, you say, that’s great for stories, but why do I need a battle in my life? Lots of reasons — not least of which is you need stimulation in order to thrive. Without a conflict, you’d be mentally stunted and die of boredom! But there are other evidences that prove our need for adversity.
Babies and birth
The passage through the birth canal helps newborns to thrive. The birth process is an ordeal for mother and baby, and it is vitally necessary.
I recently learned that babies born via c-section receive fewer beneficial microorganisms than children born vaginally, and it takes them longer to develop equivalent immune function. Sure removing babies surgically is less strenuous, but it’s not as good for the mother or the baby.
We’re all aware of the metamorphosis from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. But did you know that the emerging butterfly needs to struggle free of the chrysalis to be able to form flight-worthy wings? It’s true. The effort of extricating itself from the cocoon forces hemolymph into the channels of the wings, giving them the needed shape. Take away the struggle and the circulation doesn’t happen, resulting in malformed and useless wings.
We’ve talked about this before. If you want to build a sculpted physique, there are no shortcuts. Sure you can apply intelligence to increase your exercise efficiency and effectiveness, but you’re still going to have to put in the time doing the right work consistently and in the right way.
Soldiers, sailors, and marines
Each branch of the service has its own boot camp — that period of time when raw recruits are forged into warriors. The adversarial model of instruction subjects the candidate to physical and emotional stress to cultivate strength, endurance, and resilience, since there are no time outs in combat. The harshness of this type of initiation also weeds out the merely interested from the deeply committed.
When you are facing opposition, try asking yourself how badly you want what’s on the other side of that obstacle.
If you crave the frictionless, zero-gravity life, please note that astronauts have to simulate earth’s gravity in space to avoid becoming worthless in this world when they return. The reason is that earthlings’ bones and muscles are suited to the load placed on them by gravity. Remove that base layer of resistance, and atrophy and bone loss set in.
Just in case you doubt the case I’m making here, consider what becomes of children whose parents coddle them. By seeking to remove any possibility of frustration or — horrors! — tears, coddling parents destroy their children’s resilience and resourcefulness. One needs the experience and wisdom he gains by solving small problems when he is small, so that his capacity grows with him.
Scars are stories — ask Shakespeare
Difficult times leave their marks — some physical, some psychic — but they all tell stories. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the young king is rallying his outnumbered men before the climactic confrontation against the French at Agincourt. In his famous monologue, Henry says:
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”
The wounds sustained in a valiant struggle are the seed bed of stories. And those stories are how we transfer noble character traits and/or warn against ignoble ones.
Adversity creates resilience and prepares one for the next challenge. How do I know? Because people who get wiped out don’t tackle the next challenge.