This is a key theme in Calvin & Hobbes, by Bill Watterson. In these comics we follow the antics of Calvin, a precocious, adventurous 6-year old and Hobbes, his sardonic stuffed tiger. Often, Calvin’s dad is seen trying to help Calvin “build character” through experiences that Calvin finds unpleasant – camping, shoveling snow, bug bites, enduring the cold. In short, suffering a tough life that doesn’t want to.
We can all relate to it. No one wants to suffer, yet we have all been through some suffering in our lives, whether it may be trivial or life altering, personal or familial, emotional or physical. Over time, these shape the person we become.
My worst experiences in hindsight have been the most character building. With suffering you learn perseverance, with perseverance you build character, with character you learn to always act and aim for a better outcome.
But I only realized this several years after the suffering. When in this journey did character get built? When I suffered? When I emerged out of suffering? When the suffering is a distant memory? I want to argue that it’s the last one.
Over time, our brains are wired to fade the memory of unpleasant things, give them a deceptive, romantic sheen and dramatize our heroic behaviour in a tough situation. I propose that character is well and truly built in our head much after the incident. After telling and re-telling the incident to ourselves or others, we remember and accentuate how brave or kind or hard working or honest we were during the suffering. We begin to believe in our ability and goodness. This positive reinforcement is what builds character for the next time we go through suffering. The suffering is important because it offers an experience to live through, demonstrate strength and a story to tell.
Some of my lessons learnt from surviving these character-building experiences – Stay focused on an objective action plan and don’t wallow in self-pity. Think of what you would recommend if a friend were going through what you are. Get advice. While family and friends are great, sometimes you need an objective, dispassionate expert or coach. Know when to change course or cut the cord. Doing more of the same will not yield a different outcome. And always keep the hope. There will be a fabulous story to tell at the end of the suffering.
So whatever it is you are going through, keep at finding a solution, keep the hope and think of Calvin to bring a smile on your face.