Friday, August 24, 2012

Do Negative Experiences Build Character?

The other day I was indulging one of my favorite downscale diversions, watching Judge Judy. A twenty-four year old woman whose dog had been killed by another dog was telling her tale of woe. Without wavering she described the death of her dog as the most painful experience of her young life. I both pitied and envied her.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love animals. When I was a teenager my cat, Saka died of poisoning. We found her in the backyard with her eyes open, forever staring into space. I was devastated. By the time I was twenty-four I'd also experienced the death of my mother, the suicide of my grandmother, dealing with the juvenile court system, alcoholism, mental illness, a whole raft of issues that for me and my friends were just par for the course. Would Saka's death have been my most painful experience? I doubt it would even make the top five.

Do I think that people with more difficult lives are better people? Au contraire ma chere. I actually kind of lean in the opposite direction but would be last to apportion blame. When I first had the opportunity to get to know "rich" people (who were actually upper middle class) I found them very nice...hard to get to know at first, but sweet, soft and fluffy compared to the razor-edged folks I was accustomed to.They might offer to do things for you like picking you up at the hospital after you had your impacted wisdom teeth removed. Their parents had often, but not always, modeled caring behavior for them. It was such an unusual experience for me, to feel nutured and appreciated.

My hard-scrabble friends' support was there but erratic. It was more dependent on the convergence of many factors, the ebb and flow of their personal lives. Sometimes they were pillars of support, sometimes they couldn't be found. Do they have more character? I'm not even sure what that means. They may have more resilience and stamina and now, as a writer, I can definitively state that they have more material.