“Adversity builds character,” I like to say. Granted, I tend to say it in response to situations that aren’t necessarily adverse (e.g. when my son complains that he can’t have candy for dinner). But punchline or not, I say it because I believe it. I’m inclined to view my own hardships not as tragedies but as gifts. As someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder, I know all too well that childhood trauma can produce lasting, painful consequences. Despite that, I persist in this idea that I’m somehow better for it. Now and then I wonder where this perpetual positivity comes from.
In an article titled What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker, psychologist Noam Shpancer makes a convincing argument against that Nietzschean refrain, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” In fact, Shpancer argues, ” … the bulk of psychological research on the topic shows that, as a rule, if you are stronger after hardship, it is probably despite, not because of the hardship.” He goes on to say:
Developmental research has shown convincingly that traumatized children are more, not less, likely to be traumatized again. Kids who grow up in a tough neighborhood become weaker, not stronger. They are more, not less likely to struggle in the world.
I know this. And yet, Shpancer’s conclusion that “A history of hardship is not a life asset” surprised me. DID alone testifies to the destructive, disabling effects of childhood trauma. What starts as adaptive functioning, DID almost always becomes, later in life, maladaptive and disruptive. There’s plenty of evidence in my life that DID is a liability. So what’s with all the gratitude? Why would someone like me, someone who knows firsthand that childhood trauma can have devastating effects that impose lifelong limits on an individual’s capacity to thrive or even function, subscribe to the theory that adversity builds character?
Shpancer has some ideas:
- Life is suffering. That’s easier to accept if we believe the suffering makes us stronger.
- Americans, full of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps vigor, want to believe that trauma toughens and not only seek out evidence in support of the idea that it does, but interpret information in such a way that lends credibility to that belief.
- In an effort to find meaning, we confuse co-occurrence with cause-and-effect.
But perhaps the number one reason I gravitate towards gratitude is because I was taught to. Indoctrinated in a conservative Christian ethos, I marinated from an early age in an environment where a man like Job wasn’t someone to pity, but to revere. A decent guy who’d done pretty well for himself, Job had the distinct misfortune of being the subject of a wager between God and Satan. He lost his livelihood, his children, his health, and everything he owned. To say Job was traumatized is putting it mildly. But his plight was never presented to me as anything other than an honor. His suffering, anyone’s suffering, was regarded as a gift from God.
“Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.”
Isaiah 48:10, New American Standard Bible
The idea that trauma is fortifying is at least as old as the Old Testament. But I’ve long since abandoned religion as anything other than a valuable sociological and psychological study. So I’m amused to find, even now, vestiges of my religious upbringing in quips like, “Adversity builds character.” And perhaps it does. But my proclivity to gratitude is likely born largely from the erroneous and long ago discarded belief that suffering is a gift from a god I don’t believe in.