Hardships and Character-Building

Among conservative Americans there exists an idea that overcoming hardships is essential for character-building. People imagine that poverty is a just punishment for laziness, that a state cannot just give people free food, affordable housing, free healthcare, child support, and guaranteed minimum income, because then everybody would just become lazy and stop working. In fact, merely working isn’t sufficient, a person has to work hard in order to earn their daily bread and a roof above their head.

There exists an assumption that life is a struggle for survival, and therefore surviving or thriving in this world is a matter of competing successfully. This means that the world is difficult and that we must become self-disciplined through rewards and punishments which builds character. (The link leads to a blog post written by another Freethoughblogs blogger who explains this mindset in greater detail.)

Let’s begin with the fact that a fair competition is inherently impossible when babies are born in different circumstances. One person will be born as a white, cis, straight male in a wealthy family with parents paying for his university education and giving him money to start his business. Another will be a black trans woman born in a poor family and with some disability, she won’t be able to properly get even basic education, because she will be forced to help her single mother take care of her younger siblings. What a fair competition indeed! In reality, if a person is born in a wealthy family, they probably will be wealthy their entire life. And if somebody is born in poverty, getting out of it will be near impossible. And hard work doesn’t help in a world in which poor people are offered dead-end minimum wage jobs with no social security, while the wealthy can “work” as “consultants” in their parents’ or friends’ companies where they get huge salaries for literally doing nothing.

But let’s get back to hardships in general. Why should people create a difficult world in the first place? Sure, natural disasters and diseases exist outside of our control and commonly defy our attempts to mitigate them, but a lot of difficulties the average person faces in their daily life are inflicted by the society and would be avoidable. Instead of creating a society in which some unfortunate people suffer, it would be possible to create a society in which people help and support each other.

Start with abolishing all forms of discrimination. On top of that, guaranteed minimum income and state-funded healthcare would be doable and would be a great start in alleviating a lot of suffering and making survival and thriving in this world much less difficult. Ending bigotry and discrimination is a work in progress everywhere, but some countries on this planet (hint: look at Scandinavia) already have state-funded healthcare systems and some kind of social safety net with minimum income for the most vulnerable groups of people. Even though resources on this planet are indeed limited, what I am mentioning here is practically possible and doable.

Right now humans intentionally make this world a harder place than it needs to be. Poor people struggle to get accessible housing while countless apartment buildings in cities stay empty for years, because their owners want higher rent or sale’s price than what people can afford to pay. Never mind all the real estate speculators who impede poor people’s access to housing even further. Another example: millions of people are malnourished despite the fact that humanity currently wastes a huge portion of all the food we produce. Under capitalism, often it is more cost effective to deposit unsold food in the dumpster compared to allowing hungry people get it.

Of course, resources on this planet are limited. Often there are practical limitations that make it impossible for everybody to get everything they want. But the fact remains that our society intentionally creates a world in which thriving is harder than it could be if we collectively made different decisions and distributed available resources more equally.

So why do some people want to intentionally create a world in which surviving and thriving is harder than it needs to be? Well, billionaires certainly love to amass a fortune by exploiting wage slaves. After all, exploiting a person is much simpler once they are desperate, struggle to survive, have no alternative job options, and no access to education.

But really, how do people justify as this suffering? “Sufferings builds character and prevents laziness”?

“What doesn’t kill you makes you strong”? Bullshit, what doesn’t kill you only gives you a PTSD.

“Suffering builds character”? Yeah right, unless “a cynical and jaded nihilist” is the kind of character you want.

Of course, this is complicated and depends on the person. Sometimes people seek ways how to learn from their negative experiences and turn those into something overall useful if not even beneficial. Often, if hardships aren’t severe enough to inflict PTSD, they really can contribute to some sort of character building that is healthy and beneficial for the person. People react differently to hardships. Some certainly work hard and don’t lose hope. But this does not justify intentionally inflicting hardships upon random people who didn’t want or consent to these experiences.

What I am about to write next is a personal anecdote. I am not claiming that my reactions to growing up in poverty are representative of other people. But I am skeptical of the conservative theory that suffering builds character and creates self-disciplined and hardworking people, because that certainly didn’t happen with me.

The character building I got was one that made me cynical, jaded, and hopeless about the future.

What did I learn? I learned that people were two-faced hypocrites whose actions do not match their words. People talked about how they care about children, yet I was a child about whom the society didn’t give a fuck.

I learned that for many people my life has no value unless I am a paying customer. For them, if I don’t have money, I am just a nuisance who would be better off dead. By the way, in my city there was a bridge where people routinely went for committing suicide. After a while politicians got fed up with the sight of dead corpses littering an otherwise beautiful cityscape and put up some barbed wire around the bridge. If politicians actually cared about helping these desperate people, they would have invested money in accessible mental health support instead. For the society, some people’s suffering was irrelevant as long as people with money didn’t get inconvenienced by the ugly sight of homeless or dead people’s bodies in public places.

I learned that hard work is worthless. It’s not like people get rewarded for their hard work in our society, so why bother? You don’t get rich by working hard for you entire life. You get rich by exploiting others, making them work hard for you, and taking the profits of their work. Most of the time, in some company numerous people work hard for the minimum wage. Meanwhile the bosses and shareholders earn millions, live in huge houses, own numerous expensive cars and luxury watches they bought just because they could.

I didn’t believe for a second that those who were wealthy deserved it. Imagine a person who works for 40 hours per week and gets a minimum wage. Now image their boss who earns ten times more. Was I supposed to believe that they work 400 hours per week? As if that were even possible.

I learned that connections and not education matters. My mother had a master’s degree in electronic engineering. Her brother had a degree in airplane engineering. Both ended up working minimum wage jobs. Meanwhile, most of their bosses had either worse education or no university degrees at all. (Part of the problem could have been that in USSR Russians were bosses and Latvians weren’t allowed to get promotions.)

I learned that I cannot afford to publicly display weakness, or some predator will try to exploit me. After my mom became a single mother, her co-workers and employers attacked her like vultures and exploited her vulnerable situation. They knew she was desperate and she didn’t have the free time or money savings necessary in order to quit this job and search for another place to work, so they exploited her as much as possible. Basically, my mother worked harder than any of her colleagues, she earned the least amount of money in the entire workplace, and she was the last in line for promotion. After all, why should you promote a person whom you can so conveniently abuse and exploit? Conclusions: don’t show any weakness or scammers and wannabe exploiters will target you; don’t accept any commitments; don’t get stuck in a situation where somebody could easily exploit your vulnerability; never fully trust anybody, take calculated risks instead; don’t rely on anybody but yourself.

I learned that the world was a grim shithole and that not being born at all would have been better. Perception of poverty is relative. For example, I have no doubt that kids whose health gets ruined due to malnutrition would have envied me because of how much food I had. Yet this didn’t stop me from feeling bad when I visited my school friends at their homes and realized that I could not invite them to visit me at my home.

Imagine living in the local equivalent of slums. Old apartment buildings with tiny apartments, cracks in the walls, a leaking roof. I was lucky to actually have a toilet inside the apartment, many other similar houses didn’t have this luxury. Of course, there was only cold water from the tap, no shower or bath in your home. During winter, it was always cold at home, because the wood burning furnace couldn’t keep the place warm. Often I did my school homework while wearing gloves. Meanwhile, every time I went outdoors, in my city I saw countless empty houses.

How was any of that fair? How can a child who lives in such conditions grow up to believe in goodness of people?

Being a lifelong atheist, I never believed that I will get rewarded in the afterlife. Nor did I think that there was some purpose behind all that crap my mother had to endure. In fact, my life as a child was relatively fine. I just had to go to school and get good grades, the society didn’t ask that much from me. Instead it was my mother who suffered. In mornings, when I went to school and she went to work, she often said goodbye with the phrase “time to go to suffer.” She hated her work. Immensely.

And I am actually lucky that I didn’t get actual depression or PTSD. Poverty as well as food and housing insecurity can seriously mess up a person’s mind.

Here’s an example for my readers who got lucky to have parents with money. Think about some person you love deeply. It might be your spouse, a dear friend, a parent, or child. Now imagine that they have some chronic disease, which cannot be cured and can either kill or severely cripple them at any moment. They might survive for another 20 years. But they might also die tomorrow. They might remain relatively fine for some more years or they might get crippled and bound to a wheelchair the next week. Basically, imagine living for a prolonged period of time with a constant sense of insecurity and fear about the tomorrow, constant dread that at any moment your life could fall apart. Not knowing what you will eat or where you will live a few days from now can result in some emotional scars.

People who have experienced hunger often cannot throw out any food also later once their financial situation improves, they will eat even spoiled food knowing that it can make them sick. Those who have experienced poverty often become obsessive hoarders, they cannot throw out even an empty plastic yogurt container thinking that maybe someday they will need it for a flower pot.

In my case, I cannot buy a cup of tea in some café without feeling guilty and bad about myself. I feel that I am wasting money, because instead of paying a lot of money for this ready-made cup of tea I could make tea at home for much less money (tea leaves and tap water are cheap).

When I was an infant, my mother illegally moved into a then empty apartment (state owned). Afterwards she spent a few years fighting a legal battle against the person who was supposed to live there instead of her. Eviction procedure is complicated here, to begin with, you need a court order to get somebody out of a home where they aren’t legally allowed to live. My mother stalled for time by getting doctor’s notices about being sick and thus repeatedly postponing the court date. Nonetheless, police pestered her every now and then, on one occasion they sealed the door from the outside while she was inside her home together with me.

Before I was born, my mother had mostly stable income. Some low-level office job didn’t pay much, but it was enough to buy food. After I was born, she couldn’t just leave me for 10+ hours every workday. As the American conservatives like to say, “no work, no food.” And no firewood either. During one winter, as a child, I played with ice cubes in my home (and no, we didn’t have a fridge, the indoor temperature was below freezing).

When my mother went to state employees asking for help with food and housing, she was given a small bag of grain and told not to come back. She was informed that she is welcome to live under some bridge and that there exist orphanages for children. They even treated her with contempt as a whore (according to them, that was how children are born out of wedlock).

By the time I was four years old, my mother got us a dog (an old collie girl she got for free, her name was Kami), she left me alone at home with our dog and went to work. Kami wasn’t playful, she just spent her days sleeping next to the door. I mostly spent my days sleeping next to her on the floor, being bored, sometimes crying in her fur. (Yes, it was illegal to leave a four years old child alone at home. Unfortunately, my grandmother was dead, my grandfather lived in another region, my sperm donor was nowhere nearby either. Most importantly, there were no free places in nearby kindergartens either. And how exactly was a poor person supposed to hire a nanny?)

As I got older, at some point I stopped crying and realized that I had to become tough instead. For example, crowded public transport was a battleground. On one occasion, an older man put his grocery bags on my head so that he didn’t have to support their weight with his own hands. On another occasion, I fell while getting out from a bus. While I was lying on the ground in the doors, numerous people just stepped over me in their rush to get the best seats. When I was six years old, I broke my leg while playing in a public park. Shortly after the cast was removed from my leg, I was driving home from a hospital in a bus. I was sitting. A woman grabbed me by my arms and pulled me out of my seat in a way that was painful for me (she wanted my seat). After numerous experiences like these, I started fighting back. I learned all the rude words people yell at each other. Whenever somebody pushed me, I pushed them back with whatever force I had. Even if my body was much smaller and weaker, I made up for it with brutality and sheer determination.

Spanking children is illegal in my part of Europe. My mother didn’t do it, whenever she was dissatisfied with my behavior, she informed me about that verbally. Nonetheless, a number of adults tried to hit me every now and then. For example, when I was seven, my school classmate’s grandmother tried to hit me (she failed, I hit her back and ran away).

In some social sciences experiments researchers test a kid’s self-discipline by letting them choose between one marshmallow right now or two marshmallows fifteen minutes later. I occasionally got a somewhat similar yet absolutely twisted test. I could choose between injuring my fists right now by hitting an adult person with every bit of strength I had in my tiny body or experiencing more pain later on after they have finished spanking me. I always chose to fight. I fought brutally paying zero attention to injuries I got on my fists. I actually won every single fistfight against some adult. They were forced to give up as soon as they realized that I will never give up and they couldn’t just bring to some hospital a severely beaten up child (spanking was illegal).

By the time I was in my mid teens, I already had the worldview of an old grump—I expected the worst from everything and everybody. The kind of life attitudes I developed at such an early age were not healthy, and I was basically a model example for what should never happen with any child. At that time, I lived thinking that it would have been better to never be born, because life sucked.

The supposedly character-building hardships I have experienced also forced me to conclude that I am better off giving up on humanity. Why bother trying to make the world a better place or working in order to right all the wrongs you see around yourself if the world is a grim hellhole and you see no light at the end of the tunnel? Or, for that matter, why bother working hard if those with money and power will abuse you endlessly and never let you get a job where you get paid more than the minimum wage?

What’s the meaning of life? For me there is none, all that’s left is to embrace hedonism: pursue pleasurable and enjoyable activities while you can. Like this I can keep on living until the amount of suffering I experience exceeds the number of enjoyable experiences and there remains little hope for future improvement.

Why bother working hard and doing anything, really? As long as I remain alive, I need food, shelter, and some entertainment/pleasure. In order to get these things, I do need to do some work. Besides, since so far I haven’t fallen into apathy, I don’t want to get bored, thus I also need to do something to keep myself entertained. But why work hard beyond the minimum amount of work I can get away with? After all, hard work is contrary to the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure.

All those activities that seem to give meaning and purpose for other people’s lives seem inherently pointless for me. For example, even if I were to have a child and raise them into a good person, what’s the point? The chances are they would just starve to death after crops fail due to a changing climate. Putting a lot of effort into some career hoping that after decades of hard work I will finally get promoted and become rich? Yeah right, I have seen how hard work correlates with getting promoted (in plenty of places the correlation is negative, without friends in high places, the harder you work, the less likely your boss is to stop exploiting you and allow you access to some better paid position within the company).

Why bother having a blog? The obvious answer: to entertain myself. After all, I do enjoy conversations with other people. But if that’s the case, then why do I write about topics like bigotry, environmental pollution, and global warming? It’s not like I enjoy writing about such depressing topics. Do I still have some lingering remnants of hope that this planet isn’t totally doomed? Apparently.

As a matter of fact, right now I am much more optimistic compared to how I was a decade ago. If my long time readers have already concluded that I must be a grim and hopeless cynic, well, I used to be much worse. My outlook towards life somewhat improved when my living conditions got better. Later in life I also found out that some people are actually pretty nice and do care about others (an idea I found unimaginable as a child).

"The Nihilist" by Paweł Merwart.

“The Nihilist” by Paweł Merwart. I love 19th century paintings.

None of this is healthy. What happened with me shouldn’t happen to anybody. It’s wrong to purposely inflict hardships upon somebody else in order to “build their character.” (Somehow all those people who are so fond of purposefully inflicting hardships upon others do not volunteer to experience them on their own skin. Seriously, how come all those white dudes who were born in wealthy families do not volunteer to spend a year living in slums and working in some sweatshop? If it is such a great character-building experience, why not volunteer for it?)

According to American conservatives, hardships are supposed to make somebody a hardworking Christian. Well, I became a lazy nihilist. So much for character-building…


  1. DonDueed says

    Well, damn. It sucks that you had to go through that. Or that anybody did / does.

    I’m glad things are better for you now, and that you’ve found some humans that aren’t complete assholes.

    I couldn’t agree more about hardships building “character”. More likely, character (whatever that means) is learned like anything else: from good examples.

  2. cartomancer says

    The title of this reminded me of something the odious right wing historian and professional bigot David Starkey once said. He claimed that being bullied for being gay at school (in his case an expensive private school) was “character building”, and therefore we shouldn’t take any action to prevent it, because we would be depriving children of this wonderful opportunity to build character.

    If the character such bullying builds is “David Starkey” then I think we should take as much action to prevent further outbreaks as possible.

    But it got me thinking – when wealthy conservative bigots think about “character building hardships” they tend to think of minor setbacks they themselves have had in their otherwise very privileged, very secure lives. I’m not saying that the young Starkey’s homophobic bullying was pleasant, necessary or justified, but in the context of his very privileged upbringing it was a minor setback, not a major calamity. Perhaps he even did learn valuable lessons from it, and would have become an even worse arsehole otherwise (I have my doubts). I can see that, in the context of a stable, secure and forgiving existence where there is the room and there are the resources to bounce back from hardships, perhaps one can be morally improved by having productive confrontations with failure and disappointment.

    Which is absolutely not the case for the vast majority of the poor and the downtrodden, of course.

  3. says

    cartomancer @#2

    But it got me thinking – when wealthy conservative bigots think about “character building hardships” they tend to think of minor setbacks they themselves have had in their otherwise very privileged, very secure lives. I’m not saying that the young Starkey’s homophobic bullying was pleasant, necessary or justified, but in the context of his very privileged upbringing it was a minor setback, not a major calamity. Perhaps he even did learn valuable lessons from it, and would have become an even worse arsehole otherwise (I have my doubts). I can see that, in the context of a stable, secure and forgiving existence where there is the room and there are the resources to bounce back from hardships, perhaps one can be morally improved by having productive confrontations with failure and disappointment.

    There exist hardships, setbacks, disappointment and failures during which at the end you manage to overcome the problem and get the upper hand. As a result, you gain experience, become wiser, more confident about yourself.

    There exist also hardships, setbacks, disappointment and failures during which you feel powerless, humiliated, hopeless, and worthless. Afterwards, you lose self-esteem and conclude that you cannot cope with difficulties.

    Whether you succeed or fail to overcome some setback determines what you will learn from this experience.

    Take school bullying for example. At school I was the geek. Thus, when I was about 14 or 15, some wannabe bullies targeted me. Every single one of them “lost” when I turned the tables and proved that my tongue can be much sharper than theirs. Moreover, at that age I had also learned to not give a fuck about some things. Dealing with attempted bullying from my school classmates could be called an opportunity to hone my speaking and arguing skills (not that I wanted such an opportunity). I certainly didn’t enjoy the experience, but it didn’t hurt me either.

    Meanwhile, if classmates had tried bullying me when I was about 6, then it would have been terrible, because at that age I was yet to learn my later “I don’t give a fuck” attitude.

    There’s also individual tolerance. Some people are more sensitive than others. It would be deeply wrong for the society to abuse kids who just happen to have certain personality traits because of the genes they got from their parents.

    Moreover, a society shouldn’t want to raise kids who see the world as a battlefield, become cold, jaded, cynical, and pessimistic, and who approach their peers with an “abuse or get subjugated” attitude. You don’t want kids to develop an unhealthy and twisted “tough warrior” mentality.

    Sure, schools and parents cannot teach kids that every single person on this planet is kind and trustworthy, but you don’t want kids living in some grim shithole with no sight of light at the end of the tunnel either. And when some kid gets constantly bullied at school, that’s how the world looks for them and that’s why you get teen suicides.

    I can agree that not every single instance of attempted bullying will harm the victim (it didn’t harm the 14 years old me), but teachers and parents still must do their best to prevent bulling as much as possible, because most of the time it is immensely harmful for the victim.

  4. Numenaster, whose eyes are up here says

    “Among conservative Americans there exists an idea that overcoming hardships is essential for character-building. People imagine that poverty is a just punishment for laziness”

    And this is a lie. Pure and simple. The proof is that it’s never applied to a failing business, only to failing people. It’s a justification that people tell themselves so they can ignore the pain of other humans.

  5. John Morales says

    To clarify, life is much easier and simpler without this striving for excellence, or for purpose, or for legacy, or for riches, or for status, etc.
    Just get on, best as you can; work to live, not live to work. Get what you need, not what you’re supposed to want.
    So simple, really.

    For most of us in advanced economies, that’s very doable.

  6. says

    John Morales @#6

    work to live, not live to work. Get what you need, not what you’re supposed to want.

    I agree, this can be a happy way how to live for many people. I certainly do not consider laziness a bad thing.

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