Is it a virtue to be fragile? (Reflections on Lukianoff & Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind – Part 1 of 3)
“There is nothing like suspense and anxiety for barricading a human’s mind against the Enemy. He wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
It was the great moral philosopher George Costanza who once famously said, “It’s not a lie, if you believe it.”
In his own twisted way, he’s right. It is not necessarily a lie if there is genuine belief. But mere genuine belief does not make an untruth, true. There is an undetected and sometimes insidious strength in what passes for conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom trains us to uncritically accept certain propositions as true simply because they have become fashionable. When our thinking is governed by conventional wisdom, we may develop a genuine belief in something that is demonstrably untrue and perhaps even harmful. It reminds me of the famous Chesterton line: Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions. Today there are seemingly endless examples of this kind of thinking.
One of the best books that I read this year was The Coddling of the American Mind by Lukianoff and Haidt. The main argument of the book is that three great untruths have become conventional wisdom in our society. These untruths govern the way that we parent, the way that we educate, and the way that we generally come to conduct our lives in the world. These untruths, like many untruths, are actually partially true. They are grounded in virtue, not vice. They are motivated by concern, not malice. Most people who have come to believe these untruths have the genuine belief that they have the best interests of their kids and students in mind, but Lukianoff and Haidt argue convincingly that these untruths have proven to be incredible obstacles holding them back.
I’m dedicating my next couple of posts to these three great untruths because I think there’s a caution in these untruths that we must hear as disciples and as parents. We’ve got to think critically and biblically about this conventional wisdom.
The Untruth of Fragility: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker
We have become a people over-concerned with safety. The book even coins the term safetyism to describe what has become an obsession. As parents and educators, we have become governed by the fear of what might happen – the worst case scenario – and believe that it is our primary responsibility to always protect young people from that worst case scenario, no matter how remote or unlikely.
As the authors points out, “Safety is good, of course, and keeping others safe from harm is virtuous, but virtues can become vices when carried to extremes.” And the case can be made that we are carrying this virtue to an extreme. We are teaching our children that in life they ought to feel safe at all times, not just physically but also emotionally. We are teaching our children to internalize fragility. We are teaching them the untruth (turning the popular phrase on its head) that whatever doesn’t kill them will make them weaker, so they must always be on their guard against any kind of danger.
The authors contrast fragility with resilience. A piece of fine china is fragile. This is why it is never used and stays safely behind glass. One moment of clumsiness will destroy the china. A child’s sippy cup, on the other hand, is resilient. When it is dropped, it doesn’t shatter. But it isn’t necessarily improved by being dropped either. They argue that children are neither fragile nor resilient. Children are antifragile. There are some things, like muscles, that only become stronger through use, challenge, and struggle. In fact, muscles that aren’t used will eventually atrophy and become useless. These kinds of things are antifragile. If you choose to either excessively protect them (china cup) or abuse them (sippy cup), they will not improve or grow. But encountering and overcoming hardship is the only way for growth to actually occur.
We are seeing evidence of how harmful this untruth really is. Rates of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and suicide among young adults have skyrocketed in recent years. Excessive safetyism is damaging our mental health. When the world is full of monsters, it’s only natural that you’re going to live your life in fear. And many colleges are exacerbating the problem. Rather than be a place that challenges students to think critically about ideas that they might not agree with, students are coddled with safe spaces, trigger warnings, and the de-platforming of controversial speakers for the emotional safety of their students. As the authors point out, avoiding triggers is a symptom of PTSD, not a treatment of it.
Safetyism and Hope
So where does this leave us as disciples? How do we counter this untruth? I believe that we can substitute one of the great Christian virtues for each one of these untruths.
Might I suggest that hope is the antidote to safetyism?
It concerns me that a generation is growing up with the genuine belief that they are owed safety and comfort; that these are the necessary ingredients of a good life. This is first of all, not true. I dare you to show me an example of a truly great person who lived his or her life believing that they were owed safety and comfort in this world. This is second of all, not biblical. Jesus never promised us safety or comfort. Actually, he kind of warned us of the opposite. Today, I’m heartbroken over stories of our brothers and sisters suffering for the faith in China and reminded yet again of the words of John 16:33. “In this world you will have trouble.” A life that is searching primarily for safety and comfort will not find Jesus (or, at least will be tempted to abandon Jesus at the first sign of trouble).
But that is not the end of John 16:33. “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” The Christian life is a life lived in hope. We don’t live our lives glorying in discomfort or suffering, but we do live our lives in patient endurance because we know the hope that we have and that our God is faithful. The biblical evidence of this is almost too much to list, but let me list a few passages here:
Romans 5:1-5 – Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Romans 8:18 – For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
2 Corinthians 4:17-18 – For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
Hebrews 12:7 – Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children.
Hebrews 11:13-16 – All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
I could mention a lot more verses, but I’ll end with this last one from 2 Corinthians 3:12. “Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold.” The Christian life is a life of persistent and insistent hope. No matter what this world may throw at us, because of the overcoming Christ, we can overcome. And as scripture reminds us, overcoming bears fruit in this life and the next. It makes us stronger. To live in the hope of Christ is to live in boldness. We are not called to live in fear, and we are not called to raise our children in the fear of anything other than the Lord. That’s why I began this post with the quote from Screwtape. One of the enemy’s greatest weapons against us is our fear over what might happen to us, our anxiety and obsession over safety. It becomes a prison locked from the inside. I know that issues of anxiety, depression, and fear are complex and personal. They can’t be solved with platitudes expressed on blogs. But if I could just suggest as a starting point, resist the conventional wisdom of fragility and replace it with the virtue of hope.
(You can read more from Chad’s blog at www.chadragsdale.com. Used with permission.)