Strength through Tragedy is a Lousy Way to Find Strength

I got picked on more than a little bit growing up. For all sorts of reasons, this kid who didn’t look quite right, had no idea how to play any sport on the P.E. docket, loved singing in the madrigal choir, and had a penchant for turtleneck shirt + cardigan combos throughout middle school was often a blaring, easy target for those who fit a more standard mold.

While there were classes that offered refuge, there were also spots within school where it was open season, even with a teacher nearby. Other kids would slip, fling, and hurl insults within earshot of teachers they knew wouldn’t speak up or offer consequences for what they’d heard.

I’ve thought about those moments quite a bit as an adult. They don’t haunt me, exactly, but they’re always there in cedar chest of my memories, preserved and ready to be pulled out should I ever need to admire where I’ve been.

As an adult, I’ve come to the conclusion that those teachers who let these moments play out weren’t callous and uncaring, as I thought they were at the time. Instead, I think it’s something worse. I think they thought I was learning a lesson. Character was under construction, and they didn’t need to step in.


As much as I love the person I’ve become and the life I’ve been able to explore so far, I wonder what it would have been like to go through school with adults who decided life was going to find legitimate ways to help me grow stronger through difficulty. Perhaps the character lessons in those classes and hallways cafeterias could have been directed at helping those who were insulting understand that the world didn’t need more jerks. Maybe the lesson could have been the value of being kind within a society.

Writing in Sunday’s Washington Post, Virgie Townsend expounds on this idea in ways more thoughtful than I can touch. Discussing scars of abuse I would have found much more devastating than the bullying I endured, Townsend writes:

By perpetuating the belief that pain is edifying, we place the onus on survivors to heal themselves — and we deemphasize the value of prevention and support services. Suffering is not what fortifies the soul or clears our vision. What makes people stronger is working with others to overcome trauma. Giving and receiving help gives suffering meaning, not the suffering alone.

Some educators I’ve met build classrooms or even schools around the exact opposite ideas Townsend writes against. When I see these in action, when I find myself in conversation with those who argue in favor practices, the reasoning always goes something along the lines of, “Well, I’m getting them ready for the real world.”

It seems to me that this approach only works to perpetuate that big, cruel world – not protect against it.

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