Everything I have learned in life that has mattered, I learned from my children. They are the “sacred Yes” about whom Nietzsche spoke.
In positive psychology we study strengths. This is good and valuable and has taught us so much about people at their best, and about life’s luminous moments. But a question arises again-and-again as to whether we can have too much of a good thing. Should we develop our strengths to the point that our weaknesses no longer matter? Or if we have too much of a strength, does it itself become a weakness? Is strength just a moderator between extremes without ever touching either?
Then there are those who instruct that it is a matter of context. But that nugget is hardly helpful because everything in life is a matter of context. What my fourth grade daughter taught me, that Associate Professors with wagging fingers could not, was that if we are too quick to retreat from strengths then we will miss their true power.
My daughter Abby had always been happy and well-liked. But one day in 4th grade, she came home crying. The other girls had been excluding her and being just plain mean. (As a man and boy, I had no idea how vicious little girls could be).
To watch any child struggle with injustice, social exclusion and bullying is heart wrenching. If it is your child, it is physically painful. At the time, I was at the University of Pennsylvania studying positive psychology. We were examining people at their best, the virtue of selflessness and survival of the kindest. All the while I could not help but ask myself how any of this applied back at home. I am not interested in how positive psychology works when people are happy and comfortable and supportive. If the field has any real value, it lies in taking what we know about the best in people and applying it in the worst of circumstances, be they in middle school or the Middle East.
And so as my daughter struggled and wept back at home, I twisted my brain for anything that could help, anyway that I could use this “stuff” to alleviate my child’s pain.
As we talked I discovered that the others girls at school were being mean to another girl, Sally. Abby, who was not really friends with Sally, stood up for her. Abby asked the other girls to leave her alone, and invited her to participate in some of their other activities. As a result, the other girls then started to exclude Abby as well. What I realized was that Abby was experiencing her problems on the playground because she was standing up for fairness, kindness and friendship. This skinny, eight year old kid showed the leadership and courage of a warrior; leadership and courage that most adults lack. These were Abby’s strengths. As a parent, this is exactly how I would hope my children would respond – and yet Abby was being punished as a result.
Using our strengths does not always feel good. Sometimes it creates other difficulties, other challenges that we must painfully navigate. But they are still strengths and still point toward a life worth living.
After I realized what was going on, Abby and I talked. We read biographies of Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt and other strong women. At one point while we were reading she stopped and said, “hey, that is kinda like what I did with Sally.”
Recognizing that her troubles were a consequence of her strengths did not make the problems on the playground go away. However she now recognized that there was not anything wrong with her. Rather now she could wear the consequences as honors, because she would not shy away from what was right or dishonor the best parts of herself. Eventually, the problems at school sorted themselves out. But Abby was able to approach them differently, with a new confidence and energy.
Photo credit to by h.koppdelaney who generously made his art available via a Creative Commons License.