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The Desirability of Difficulty


God placed children in families because they could not survive without protection and nurturing that moms and dads (or their surrogates) provide. Normal adults instinctively watch over children and shield them from danger and difficulty. Is it possible, however, that we may carry this natural inclination too far? Could our efforts to safeguard children from life’s trials actually weaken them and make them less able to function as productive adults? Two books I have read in the past month suggest this to be true.
It is generally accepted that low self-esteem hinders academic accomplishments. Parents and teachers generally desire to help children feel better about themselves. We have been encouraged to lavish praise on our children. In fact, I recently encountered a new expression to describe this phenomenon: trophy kids. Trophy kids are those who are rewarded for simply participating in an activity. Unfortunately, when they grow up, trophy kids expect praise and a paycheck for just showing up at work.
Confidence: Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Insecurity, and Self-Doubt, by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, advocates boosting self-esteem; however, the author does not promote the usual gratuitous praise and positive-thinking approach. Instead, he views low self-esteem as a good thing. Why? Self-doubt feels bad, so it can encourage a person to try harder and become more competent. Competence, in turn, brings deserved rewards and praise, thus legitimately raising self-esteem.
Another more readable book by Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath, supports Chamorro-Premuzic’s thesis by telling stories of “underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants,” which demonstrate the “advantages of disadvantages” and the desirability of difficulty. In chapter four, for example, Gladwell deals with dyslexia—a condition you would not wish upon your child, but one which has allowed many people to be more creative, better listeners, and more successful than they might otherwise have been if they were able to read effortlessly.
The bottom line is that success usually requires competence, and competence requires hard work. Hard work is . . . well, difficult! We do not do our children any favors by easing their paths through the normal challenges of life. And when they encounter the extraordinary, more painful travails of life, as we comfort and support them, we can also gently encourage them to rise above their difficulties and become better than they would have been without the suffering.
A good, practical, Christian approach to this issue, written to inspire teenagers, is Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion against Low Expectations, by Alex and Brett Harris. If you are the parent of a teen, or a soon-to-be teen, I recommend you read it and then pass it on to your child.

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Good Grief


                Over the past months, as I have been dealing with Ted’s battle with pancreatic cancer and with his death in September, my reading choices have naturally gravitated toward books, articles, and devotions dealing with grief.  Devotions are best, because they are short enough for me to absorb and have an inspiring message.  However, I did tackle Philip Yancey’s new book, The Question That Never Goes Away, which deals with one aspect of grief:  asking Why?   As you might guess from the title, this is a question that will not be answered with certainty this side of heaven.  But often we do ask it.

                Yancey wonders whether it would really relieve our heartache to know why a loved one was taken now, in this particular way.  He suggests that since we cannot know why, we should concentrate on our response:  “Find meaning in the midst of suffering and offer real and practical help to those in need.”  What meaning might be found in the death of someone we love?  One possible answer is that my grief and the caring responses of others to the death of one man confirm the value of each of us in God’s sight.  The universe is not a cosmic accident without good or evil, without purpose, as some scientists would have us believe.  We matter.  By responding to death with personal grief and caring support to those who are suffering, we acknowledge the existence of God, the reality of a moral universe.

                It is important to have your theology sorted out before you face a crisis.  All Christians are theologians, whether they realize it or not.  Our lives display our beliefs.  Back in June when Ted learned that the chemo was no longer working, and that a more potent medicine with intolerable side effects would add only  a few months to his life, he chose to accept his imminent death as God’s will.  I don’t think he ever asked Why?   Yes, he wanted to live; he enjoyed life, and he loved me, his children, his grandchildren, and his friends.  He wanted to stay.  Yet more than that, he loved and trusted God and desired His will.  His peaceful acceptance has made his passing to eternal life less difficult for me, but certainly it has not been easy!

                We know death is the enemy.  And we know that Jesus struggled with God’s will when He faced His own suffering and death.  We also know that at the death of His friend Lazarus, “Jesus wept.”  These thoughts give me comfort, and keep me from vainly asking “Why?”

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I am a Christian, a mother and grandmother, a sister, a daughter, a teacher, a widow, a friend. . .  My life is first of all defined by relationships–to God, to my family, to my students, to my friends. Of course, I am many other things: a reader, an e-mail writer, a piano player, and a somewhat reluctant traveler, for example.  And now I am a blogger.  I’m not sure why, except it seems to be a logical next step for someone addicted to e-mail.