He grew up in a house that could easily catch fire. The roof was made of tinder wood and at night mice would scurry along the roof with the makings of their nest, forming a match that would put the house ablaze. He would get up, sprint two miles to his grandparent’s house where he could get help. Once he would get there, with sweat soaked pajamas, he would vomit from fear and fatigue.
He stayed in school until his was 15, working as the school janitor at night to pay his way.
When he was 17, he was forced to leave his Missouri home –too many mouth’s to feed. They gave him a pony, his few belongings and maybe a dollar or two, and he was on his own to figure it out, survive and somehow live. I often think about that day when he left home. What went through his mind? Was he sacred? Determined? What did he carry with him that was not seen? Did he carry integrity? Humor? Honesty?
This is a snapshot of my grandfather’s life and events that took place in the 1930’s. A time that seems long ago and yet, in the grand scheme of things, was not so very long ago. A time when everyone knew something about being poor, and childhood wasn’t worshiped and life was hard and yet somehow, ironically easier than today. He had no cell phone. He would need both hands to catch rabbits and squirrels for supper. He had no education beyond 8th grade. He never took an AP class, or was on a formal athletic team, or read Jane Eyre, or typed on a computer. He knew every tree, bird, plant, how to wrestle and take apart a car and put it back together. He was forced to enter adulthood before childhood ended — if he ever knew childhood at all. And when he was old, his childlike curiosity attracted everyone to him. No one ever told him to stop being curious. Nobody worried about his future. Nobody really worried about him at all.
Why, am I telling you this story? Because all of us have moments in our lives when it feels like our house is on fire. We all have moments when we have no control over what is happening to us, or the people in our family or in our country, or in our world. Because life brings about adversity all of the time, and it is how we live to tell the tale that matters not only for the present day, but for the future. How we confront the fires in our life impacts how future generations will face future fires. Because it’s easier to tell a historical story of adversity than a present day one. It’s easier to talk about someone who overcame, than to confess a story about how hard it is to overcome.
We have all been told, and I’m sure it’s true, that character building comes through the hardest moments that you mark on your time line as a time of adversity.
The time you were rejected.
The time you were lonely.
The time you failed.
The time you got up and tried again. And failed again.
The time you realized the world was bigger than your own world.
The time your heart was broken.
The time you weren’t invited.
The time you were embarrassed.
The time you felt vulnerable.
The time everything fell apart.
These are the times that build character. It’s not the awards or the accolades or achievements. It’s the hard stuff of life that we all have more of than we care to admit and that we try to numb or avoid or pretend aren’t occurring as we paint perfect pictures on social media and to the world. — It’s the hard stuff that creates character. You cannot know humility if you have not been humbled. You cannot know perseverance if there was not something you needed to overcome. You cannot know forgiveness if you have not sinned.
If we want our kids to people of strong moral character, and I believe most of us do, then we have to accept and know that their character will only be built out of struggle, humiliation, pain, loss, disappointment and heart break.
But, dear parents, here is my word to give you, two words actually: Hold Fast. Hold Fast. I know this parenting journey is a rocky road. I know you look at your kid and think, “Will they be o.k.? Will they overcome that friendship that has gone sour, or that challenging subject, or the pressure to fit in, or whatever obstacle they are facing?” The answer is “No, of course they won’t overcome it. They will face it, deal with it, grieve it, grapple with it, and then and only then will they overcome it. And you will find that they have new skin on and they have weathered the storm and they are better person because they went through it. So, hold fast. Hold Fast.”
Everyone one of us has a story of a relative who found themselves in places that were not of their choosing and they had to decide how to survive and persevere. We stand on their shoulders. We need to believe that our kids are as capable of overcoming adversity as those who came before us were. Indeed, we need to believe that we are as capable of overcoming adversity as our ancestors were. We need to accept that really challenging, awful things will happen in our kid’s lives and in our lives, and instead of fearing them, we need to welcome them, because it’s the struggle that will work the muscle of faith. It’s the struggle that will build compassion. It’s the struggle that will make a person of character.
Let’s hope and pray that we adults can pass the character test we are facing today, so that our children will some day tell our story of how we confronted the fires in our world, and overcame. If we want our kids to be grounded in strong moral character, and I believe most of us do, then we have to remember our humanity. We have to remember where we came from. We have to remember the people whose shoulders we stand.