At a recent holiday gathering, I was with some adults inside the house while the children were outside playing some team sport. It was bitterly cold but that did not seem to diminished the noisy activities outside in the snow.
As I was conversing with someone else, we both noticed a little boy, all bundled up, sitting alone at a table. My friend asked him what was wrong.
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Despite his thick down jacket, he replied that he was cold. He decided not to play with the other children and literally left his teammates out in the cold.
My friend asked him if he didn’t feel he was letting down his teammates by coming inside. The idea that others might need or depend on him never even crossed his mind, and he didn’t answer the question. He merely smiled, thus ending the conversation.
A Philosophy That Abhors Misfortune
The brief episode revealed to me a lot of what is wrong with our education and child rearing practices. There is a philosophy behind the little boy’s actions that can also be found in vast sectors of modern society, including many “big boys.”
That philosophy is that when a situation becomes uncomfortable, simply leave and smile without thinking of the consequences. Personal comfort becomes the standard of judgment for most things. Everything must be done to prevent misfortune — even if it only be bitter cold.
Of course, everyone knows the school of hard knocks is an excellent teacher and builder of character. Most would accept the notion that when misfortune strikes, it can do children a lot of good. However, few people break the unwritten commandment out there that says we cannot wish suffering or misfortune upon our children. They must open the door at the first sign of discomfort from the cold.
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Wishing Misfortune Upon Graduates
That is why I was surprised to see a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by Bob Greene that recounted an extraordinary graduation speech given last spring by Chief Justice John Roberts to his son’s high school class. His address broke every rule for the optimistic speeches that are normally given at these affairs. It provides some lessons for boys little and big who come in from the cold.
Indeed, Chief Justice Roberts does the unthinkable: he told them directly that he hoped misfortune would cross their path.
“From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice.”
“I hope you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty.”
Roberts proceeds to wish upon the newest generation a string of misfortunes including loneliness, bad luck, loss (with gloating winners) and the state of being ignored. All of this, the Chief Justice affirms, will make them appreciate the contrary virtue.
Not Cruel or Lacking Compassion
Some might think the Chief Justice’s words are cruel and lacking compassion. One should never wish misfortunate on anyone regardless of the benefits that might be obtained. This is especially true of children who are weak and vulnerable.
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However, the justice is not wishing upon children any avoidable evil. He does not wish any specific act that threatens them on the horizon.
He tells the graduates of the certain future that awaits them. Everyone without exception eventually suffers misfortunate. They will suffer injustice and betrayal whether another wishes it upon them or not. They will be lonely, unlucky and ignored. They will be bitterly cold.
It is best to accept these sufferings and take lessons from them.
The Real Cruelty
Cruel are those who desire that children be shielded from all suffering and misfortune. Such children will enter the world unprepared for the trials that inevitably await them. They will experience resentment and rage because they believe misfortunes to be unfair (and they often are unfair).
They will feel entitled to all benefits without the effort of meriting them. These poor children will suffer much more than those who embrace misfortunate. They will melt like snowflakes before adversity. They will resort to drugs and addictions as a means to escape the reality of life’s misfortunate. They will come in from the least cold.
Not Sufficient to Overcome Our Passions
Our unbridled passions and self-interest are such that even the best of intentions are often defeated. The only way to overcome these obstacles is to follow a higher ideal.
The words of Chief Justice Roberts, while wise and true, are not enough. His comments reflect an appeal to a type of natural virtue that can help build character in youth and look after self-interest. They might serve to help a person accept trials with stoic resignation. However, such advice alone cannot overcome our nature that abhors suffering and misfortune, and wants in from the cold.
Our unbridled passions and self-interest are such that even the best of intentions are often defeated. The only way to overcome these obstacles is to follow a higher ideal that consumes the person and allows the soul to embrace, with love, that which our fallen nature rejects.
Without such an ideal, there is no compelling reason to do that which is so difficult. We will fail to find the strength to overcome the passions.
The Cross of Christ
The great victory of the Church is that she proposes the consuming ideal of seeking the Cross of Christ. With the help of Grace, we are taught, even at a tender age, not merely to accept our sufferings but to embrace them with love. We carry the crosses of our misfortunes with joy and resignation since our model is Christ, Who suffered infinitely more for us.
Christian civilization was a society in which children are taught to embrace the cross. The Church taught them to love their neighbor as themselves for the love of God. It creates a society full of charity, respect and responsibility. A society in which sacrifice was valued as a means to perfection and sanctification, and also led to a passion for excellence and beauty. It created a society full of innocence and wonder.
In short, this Christian ideal is the only one that builds upon and perfect nature. The child senses the loving presence and aid of God as a Father and Mary as mother. Such a society is the perfect school of the small child to overcome laziness and selfishness. It enkindles inside the innocent heart of the child a burning love that conquers the cold cruel world outside.
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