Saturday, January 22, 2022

Does pain and suffering build character?

“No pain, no gain.” This is one of Botswana’s hackneyed cliches. Hardly surprising. Batswana are products of a culture which socializes us to believe  that enduring a tragedy is good for personal growth. “You will have a newfound appreciation for life they say, you will learn from the experience. You will become more resilient”, these are some of the platitudinous phrases that are always thrown about. Hardships come in many shapes and sizes: Financial problems, family tragedies and more. In either scenario the victims either rise above the adversity or buckle and collapse under its weight.

Dr Poloko Ntshwarang, senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana says, “It is important to understand that the ups and downs of life are necessary for our character to evolve and for us to experience growth. This means that we undergo some sort of transformation, a cleansing or purification by means of suffering and change. We purge our emotions through a disastrous occurrence and ultimately find restoration and resolution at the conclusion. You create resilience through facing and overcoming difficult situations. Every challenge we face and navigate strengthens our will, confidence, and our ability to conquer future obstacles. You probably know you will face a variety of hardships throughout your life.”

Adversity may be painful at the moment, but pain is temporary. Development in character results from change. And change happens either intentionally, or unintentionally. But when change happens unintentionally is when the most noticeable shift in character occurs. When a dramatic shift in the environment happens, a person isn’t changing because they want to, but because it is necessary for their survival. In many ways, it could be seen as problematic to embrace the idea that personal growth and resilience are typical outcomes of hardship. It could communicate: Suffering is good in the long run, and people who have experienced trauma are stronger than those who haven’t. Even so, moving on from a tragedy isn’t easy. Sometimes, the trauma of certain tragedies, such as the death of a child or a spouse for example, never fully goes away. And then there are those who are open about the fact that they are struggling after a loss months, even years later. If “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” were true, these people might be viewed as “weak,” or seen as having something “wrong” with them. The most important life lessons come when people are faced with situations that they are ill equipped to deal with. Feelings of helplessness, shock, sadness and anger are felt. It may be the illness or death of a loved one, losing a job, a relationship; or having a transgression committed against them in some way. It may be something that is very common, but feels like despair that they have never experienced before, or it may be something catastrophic like a natural disaster, poverty, famine or war.

Clinical psychologist, Dr Sophie Moagi says, “Hard times will happen. This is simply another aspect of life on earth. See it as a facet of self-growth. Misfortune tests you to become stronger and to face things head on, to dig that much deeper. Nothing worth reaching for will come without setbacks. Accepting that you’ll go through tough times and have setbacks before they occur will help you plan for contingencies—which will get you back on track faster. Character building is crucial to overcoming hardships. It shapes us into who we are and who we will become. It creates the confidence to overcome and the learning mechanisms to deal with the things that don’t go our way.”

While experiences and feelings are valid and unique to each person; in the grand scheme of things, there are people who have endured far worse and survived. The diversity of emotions one withstands when one’s life becomes unstable compels them to have a range of responses that they may not have had the opportunity to explore when things were going well. They gain problem solving skills, resilience, patience and ingenuity. Life’s challenges are what makes us who we are gives us the strength and purpose to be prepared for anything. Personality and character evolves through each experience and with practice many find the optimism to face misfortune head on.

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