People tend to think of naivety as an embarrassing horror to be avoided. They think of naive people (or naifs) as people who need a good heaping dose of reality to cure them of their unfortunate naivety. On the contrary, I think that because naifs live lives free from the hardships that so many of us endure, they’re able to become wiser and better people, who lead happier lives. Therefore, those of us who endure hardships should do so with a certain amount of grace and humility, knowing that our hardships protect those blessed enough to be born free of them.
We’re Wired to Hate the Blessed
When we meet a naif, we tend to react angrily, or with some sort of derisive mockery. If we meet a fellow who isn’t familiar with our own personal brand of hardship, we treat him like he’s spoiled, having never had to go through what we did, having never had to scrape things together like we had, and having never suffered the kind of disappointment that we have. We hold our pain and hardship out like a badge of honor. We behave this way because we think that hardships throughout life build character, and make us better, wiser people. We think those who don’t suffer these tragedies are spoiled, worse people, undeserving of the grace they have.
I think this bias is most clearly seen when talking about home-schooled children. Those who have never been home-schooled often think of them as “out of touch” with reality, and unable to face the hardships of “real life”. Some are, but most I know are very well adapted socially, and smarter than any other kids their age – well equipped to wade through life without needing a tragedy to toughen them.
The idea that a child needs to suffer through hardship in order to be ready for life is silly, because there always has to be first hardship for there ever to be a second. The man who has endured tragedy all through his life has survived, but not because his tragic life made him tough. After all, his first tragedy happened to a boy who had never known tragedy. And the boy, as naive as he was, survived.
The closest analogy I can make is with soldiers. A man goes off to war and experiences horrors most of us never see. He learns a code of living compatible with war, but incompatible with peace. When he comes home, everyone around him seems preoccupied with banalities – with things that are really rather trivial and meaningless. They’re all spoiled, soft, and weak. They didn’t see what he saw, they didn’t do what he did, and yet they enjoy the riches of civilized life without having to sacrifice what he sacrificed; whereas he has to start from square one, make a career for himself and assimilate into a culture that is wholly alien to him. He, along with his comrades, know what the world is really like. The rest of us are naive.
The Point of Sacrifice
Our ancestors worked hard in hopes that their children would not have to suffer the same hardships they did. In effect, our ancestors hoped that life would be easier for their children so they could enjoy other pursuits. Men who are not encumbered with working 40 hours a week, putting all their spare money aside for their kids’ college fund, and then doing necessary home repairs in their free time can enrich their minds with study and art. They can gain wisdom, not through something as uncontrollable and unpredictable as personal experience, but through the recorded personal experiences of others. In short, they can become more sophisticated by spending their time learning from those who were taught harsh lessons via experience.
There is an old saying: “Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” or something along those lines, which evidently comes from Nietzsche. However, the saying is not true. Research has shown that, while sometimes people are strong despite suffering tragedy, they are rarely strong because of tragedy. Most people who experience tragedy are permanently traumatized, and never retain the level of productivity they once had. An article on Psychology Today recently covered this phenomena:
“‘We have known for a long time that trauma exposure can lead to subsequent vulnerability to mental health disorders years after the trauma,’ said lead researcher Dr. Barbara Ganzel… The school of hard knocks does little more than knock you down, hard.”
New York Magazine recounts similar observations of Holocaust survivors:
“Studies of Holocaust survivors have repeatedly shown that their mental health remained — and remains, in the instances of those who are still alive — more fragile throughout their lives: They reported more anxiety, more depression, and more all-around symptoms of PTSD than the general population. State-of-the-art genetic research also suggests that early trauma can severely damage our telomeres, the protective tips of our chromosomes that defend us against cancer and premature aging.”
A Better Way to Gain Wisdom
In an earlier post, I explored the idea that entertainments like reading are selfish for those to pursue who have not yet attained the lifestyle they want for their families – that is, wealth. But for those who are rich, who don’t need to meet the mundane day-to-day needs of their families, I can see no better pastime than to read and write and enjoy art to gain wisdom.
This wisdom, incidentally, is the attribute many think they gain after suffering tragedy or hardship. But this same wisdom can be gained whether through first-hand experience, or through studying the experiences of others and listening to their wisdom. We should then protect the naivety of the young and inexperienced, and introduce them to the wisdom of others, gained through experience. Then, they will grow wise and less naive over time, while never being damaged by tragedy (as much as we can help it, which is never a guarantee).
Gentlemen are Well Nurtured
It used to be that the rich among us had reputations for being cultured, well-seasoned individuals, world-wise and good-natured. Few can become world-wise, however, without significant wealth to give them the freedom to discover the world. As I explored in a previous post, Mark Twain once opined:
“You never saw a bigoted, opinionated, stubborn, narrow-minded, self-conceited, almighty mean man in your life but he had stuck in one place since he was born and thought God made the world and dyspepsia and bile for his especial comfort and satisfaction.”
Taking all bets! Which individual experienced more hardship in life: the seasoned world traveler or the stubborn mean man who was too poor to ever leave his home town?
If there are those among us who can become wise without experiencing, and who can gain great things without painful hardships, then those people and the beliefs that support them should be protected. As knights losing limbs and lives to save king and queen, we should join the military, work in a coal factory, have two or three jobs, eat paltry meals, and go without, so that our kids can play the violin, learn Latin, and gain wisdom through reading. So that their own kids can travel the world, write novels, found charities, and build a legacy.
Psychology Today sums it up well:
“Mayhem and chaos don’t toughen you up, and they don’t prepare you well to deal with the terror of this world. Tender love and care toughen you up, because they nurture and strengthen your capacity to learn and adapt, including learning how to fight, and adapting to later hardship.”