Wisdom and Suffering

“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

 Robert F. Kennedy citing Aeschylus on the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination

 

A few days ago the town manager of Billerica Massachusetts, John Curran, wrote a courageous essay about the online abuse he has received. Curran has a self-described “very rare and significant facial abnormality” known as hemifacial macrosomia, but he added that he had not been mocked for it for a very long time. That is, until the last few years.

Norms seem to have changed, he observed, where cruelty – particularly online, anonymous cruelty – has become more frequent. Curran also wrote that his childhood was not easy, and that he encountered a lot of adversity due to other children mocking him. However, he concluded on a positive note:    

It saddens me that I still have to deal with this from adults at 53 years old, but I would like to say to any young people that are different and happen to read this not to despair.

Your challenge will make you stronger, too, and you are better and wiser than anyone too ignorant to understand how to be civil and kind. Hang in there. It gets better.

Like Curran, I too think that kindness goes a long way. As a species, humans would not have gotten very far without it. And the notion that we are strengthened, not weakened, by our challenges in life is an interesting, though controversial, one.  

Borrowing a term from Nassim Taleb, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt likes to say that people are not just resilient, but “anti-fragile.” This is the idea that we don’t merely weather storms and adversities; rather, we grow from them, in terms of character and learning, as well as physiologically such as building aerobic capacity or muscle from repeated exercise. Haidt cites people like Friedrich Nietzsche (“that which does not kill me makes me stronger”) and Mencius about gaining strength through suffering, noting that:

“it’s not always true; there is PTSD. There are some things that can damage you, but for the most part it’s true… You cannot be a great man or woman unless you have suffered, faced adversity, been banged around, failed and come back, gotten back up fifty, a hundred, five hundred times. That’s the only way to greatness.”

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