Challenge Makes Us Stronger

I just finished reading The Coddling of the American Mind, an excellent book by lawyer Greg Lukianoff and psychologist Jonathan Haidt. The subtitle is How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.

The book’s main thesis is that children born in and after 1995 (“iGen”) have suffered from over-protection, over-scheduling, and over-control by parents and schools.

Those excesses come from a culture of “safetyism” that tries to guard them not only from physical danger, but from anything that might upset them. Safetyism teaches them what the authors call “the Three Great Untruths:”

  • The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
  • The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
  • The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

Like most Americans, I’ve been mystified by recent outbreaks of hysteria on college campuses. Could a large number of students be so fragile that they need fluffy toys and “safe spaces” to protect them from hearing speakers they don’t like? Could they be so confused that they think disagreement is equivalent to violence?

Frankly, I’ve found it hard to believe that they’re serious. But after reading the book, I suspect that they are.

It seems that they are more emotionally fragile than young adults should be. They also have wildly exaggerated perceptions of danger. But neither of those problems is their fault. They’ve been over-protected so much that they have no idea of how resilient they really are or what “dangers” they could easily survive.

I was going to start with a story about myself, but my grandmother is an even better example. She was orphaned at age five and adopted by a couple who treated her like cheap labor.

Life hit her young, and it hit her hard. So she got tough. When she was a teenager, she went out on her own.

By the time she was in her thirties, she had started her own business, which later went national. She ended up owning the business, a lot of real estate, and several theaters. That was in the pre-feminist 1950s when women supposedly couldn’t do things like that. She could, and she did. She never let anyone tell her what she couldn’t do; she just went ahead and did it. She was a very kind woman, but she was fearless.

I think she was fearless because she saw at an early age that she could either get tough, or else let life beat her down into a whimpering puddle of goo. She got tough, and she made herself into a remarkable person.

Now for my story. It’s not inspiring like my grandmother’s, but it teaches the same lesson.

When I was in college, I had some of the same problems as other students. Yes, reasons: I was the second-youngest student in the school, and I was pretty weird anyway. Compared to the problems of real life, mine were trivial, but they seemed serious to me at the time. So I went to the university’s counseling center and saw a therapist.

I won’t tell you his name because he’d probably lose his license. But what he did was brilliant. I owe him.

After a few sessions of listening to me whine about my problems, he let me have it with both barrels:

“Help me, help me!” he squeaked in a high voice. And he laughed.

I was stunned. I was angry. I had been looking for sympathy, and he had mocked me. I left and I never went back.

He hadn’t given me what I wanted. He had given me what I needed: a hard kick in the backside.

It wouldn’t have worked for everyone, so I don’t recommend it as a general practice. But it worked for me.

My therapist knew that I wasn’t fragile, and that I could solve the problems on my own. But I didn’t know it yet. So he forced me to do it. He shamed me for my weakness and self-pity. He goaded me into solving my own problems just to spite him.

My grandmother’s and my experiences disprove the untruth of fragility: What didn’t kill us made us stronger, not weaker.

However, even steel has a breaking point. To get stronger, members of iGen need to be challenged: hard enough to make them uncomfortable, but not so hard that they break — and of course, not to the point of serious physical danger.

The book recommends a good first step: Schools should adopt and follow the University of Chicago’s 2014 Report on Freedom of Expression. Paraphrased, it says:

  • Freedom of speech is essential to discover the truth: “The cure for ideas we oppose lies through open discussion rather than through inhibition.”
  • Students aren’t children, and the university isn’t their mommy: “It is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”
  • The university isn’t a five-star hotel: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, but to make them think.”

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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2 Responses to Challenge Makes Us Stronger

  1. J P says:

    Amen! I tried very hard with my three kids (now aged 23 to 26) to give them room to make mistakes and to not make their lives too easy. Today each is through school, living away from home and working in their chosen field. I am very proud of each of them.


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