Essential Suffering

In today’s National Post, UCC Old Boy and McLeese Chair Theo Caldwell ends his tribute to St. Patrick with this observation:

“Patrick had a special relationship with young people, and some suppose he strove to give them a hope and happiness his own childhood had lacked.  But were it not for his early suffering, could Patrick have become such a seminal figure of faith?”

I am willing to bet that you will not find the words “early suffering” in any school’s admission brochures, mission statements, or tag lines. And God help the school that has “suffering” in any form as part of its branding! (“Come suffer with us” may not be considered catchy in 2010.)

But suffering, the denial of self, the enduring of disappointment and pain – as much as we want to protect or boys from all of this – is an important and necessary part of personal development. Without these experiences, our boys won’t have the chance to develop their resiliency muscles, that inner strength that will help them endure the setbacks that will inevitably come their way. Because, as we all know all too well, life isn’t like summer camp, and not everyone will receive a blue ribbon after every contest.

The challenge for us today is that our instinctive reaction is too often to protect our sons from the slings and arrows that come their way. If my boy struggles on a math test, I want to call in a tutor. If he’s cut from a team, I want to have a word with that coach.

These well-meaning impulses, unfortunately, undermine our boys’ development. “Early suffering” – while it doesn’t make for a snazzy bumper-sticker — is actually just what he’ll need in order to become the man he needs to be.


3 thoughts on “Essential Suffering

  1. Jean Jacques Rousseau contrived some (fictional) educational experiments in his educational masterpiece Emile, which included having his student sleep in a cold bedroom with spiders. The real clincher though was teaching the child to cultivate a garden then the night before tearing all the fruits of the lad’s labour out of the earth as a lesson in disappointment.

    As university students we were outraged by what we deemed Rousseau’s dishonesty and callousness, but the professor in question, Allan Bloom (author of The Closing of the American Mind) cautioned us that there was method in the author’s madness.

    Adam de Pencier
    English Department
    Upper Canada College

    I was and am unconvinced: life deals us all enough disappointments without making them deliberate.

  2. Seems likely that Jan Baalstrud had a certain amount of early suffering, even if only by virtue of living in Norway in the early 20th Century.

    And what an interesting phrase “by virtue of” is in that sentence. It might more properly be written “by the virtues of,” which would the prompt a query: Which virtues? Foremost on the list is of course the self-denial inherent in living in subarctic climes in an era when supply and communications were limited at best. But probably a Norwegian would come up with a different list, much longer and probably less focused on the negative virtue (negative as in absence).

    This all also reminds of your post from a year or two ago, about giving boys the opportunity to fail. I don’t think it was cast that way, but it was about letting boys try things that are probably a little bit beyond them, so that tey have an opportunity to stretch themselves. As Vince Lombardi (an underrated moral philosopher) put it: it’s not whether you get knocked down. It’s whether you get up again.

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