As the Roman philosopher Seneca famously said, “Excellence withers without adversity.”
The idea of building resilience, ‘toughening up’ through adversity, has become, I think, a bit old-fashioned. As old-fashioned as a timeless and perennial principle can be! The spirit of our age has, to some extent, become one of victimhood and assumed fragility. Tolerance and understanding are vital in a healthy society, but a cure can so quickly become a poison in overdose.
If we remain coddled, eternally unoffended and unchallenged, we may weaken as individuals. And excellence may, as Seneca put it, wither and die.
No, we shouldn’t insult or belittle – but if we are protected from any form of judgement, we may become super sensitive and find offence where none was intended. In the extreme, everything becomes offensive. If we are kept in a soft prison of comfort, then we risk anything becoming uncomfortable. The person full of presumptions and narrow expectations is the one most easily offended.
Not having the chance to toughen up, learn to tolerate diverse opinions, or take feedback may make us miserable in the long term.
It’s through being offended and challenged that we find reserves of strength we may otherwise never have discovered. How much resourcefulness, strength, and heroism becomes buried for want of some kind of challenge or affront to assumptions?
No one becomes wise by simply being affirmed all the time.
If you infer that I am lazy, I can simply be offended and leave it at that. If I know there is no truth here, I can relax and move on. But if I feel some emotional disturbance, that may actually signal that I intuitively know you are right in some way. And if I’m not tough enough to take the feedback, I might just deflect it as you being horrible.
If it is true, and I can look at myself objectively, I have the chance to adapt and change.
Many people need to start to take it easy on themselves, offending themselves – but we need to be wary that our culture doesn’t become so over-cosseting that self-knowledge and resilience are driven out.
When we just take offence, we miss out on the opportunity to learn from different points of view. We stop taking feedback from life. But more than that, there is a real emotional danger in being led to believe we are more fragile and delicate than we actually are, and that comfort must be our number-one priority at all times.
Just as there are dangers in being excessively praised, so too we can begin to feel depressed and hopeless if we always look outside ourselves when we feel offended or emotionally crushed. Why? Because our locus of control is shifted from internal to external.
What happens when we hand over control?
When we base our behaviour and sense of self-worth on what other people say to us, we hand over control to external people and circumstances. We can lose that all important sense of self-reliance, of autonomy. This can lead to a form of learned helplessness
So just as excessive physical ease and comfort can erode bone density, weaken the heart, and soften the muscles, so too a deficiency of psychological challenges can weaken resilience and reduce opportunities for growth and self-knowledge. We need to learn to negotiate life as active agents, rather than passive recipients of fate simply hoping or demanding others treat us well.
We can even encourage reasonable adversity as a strategy to help us become and stay strong.