Growth, Grit and Character

Happy New Year! And welcome to 2021!!

Most of us have been anxious to get 2020 in our rearview mirror, haven’t we? It was a very tough year…a contentious political year, a year of increased social unrest and, superimposed upon everything…a global pandemic.

We know that all of these issues will be following us into 2021, but we can look forward with some hope. A vaccine, widely distributed, could bring us back to more normal social interactions by summer or fall, according to the epidemiologists. At the very least, we have begun to accept that life has to be different for a while and have figured out some strategies for staying safe AND connected. The election is over (at least in the minds of most of us). And a new administration may have some new ideas for criminal justice reform and racial equality. We can at least hope.

From this vantage point, at the pinnacle of a natural transition in our year (January 1st) would you indulge me to look back at some potential benefits we have gained during 2020?

My favorite scripture in all of the Bible is Romans 8:28 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Basically, this is a promise from God: “If you love me and try to follow my will, then I promise that I will make something good come out of all things you encounter.” This is my favorite scripture because it gives me hope in the midst of difficult times, reassurance in times of uncertainty and empowers me to persevere when I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.

So what good could have possibly come out of 2020? As you may have guessed from the title of this blog, I believe we have all had the opportunity to grow in a variety of ways, gain grit and a stronger character.

Growth, or perhaps a better term would be ‘personal development’, is usually gradual, continuous and sequential in all of us over the course of our lifetime. However, there is little need, motivation or precipitator for growth when life is moving along a relatively smooth and predictable path. I dare say that none of us experienced a smooth or predictable path in 2020! We were forced to get creative in multiple ways: from protecting our health and that of others, to making a living, to shopping, to worship, to leisure time activities. We were nudged into wearing masks, working from home, ClickList shopping, virtual worship and Zoom family ‘get-togethers’ just to name a few. Flexibility and resilience were the capacities that became most useful in 2020. If you had already developed those capacities, they were most certainly strengthened. If you did not already find these capacities as part of your personality or experience then you had to work to develop them. Thus, we all grew to some degree.

We were also provoked to grow in the area of empathy and social awareness. Would we give up our comfort and right to move and gather and adorn ourselves as we choose for the protection of others, especially the vulnerable? Would we seek to better understand the plight of those individuals with darker skin? Would we seek to listen to those on the other side of the political divide from ourselves? If your answer was ‘yes’ to any of these questions then you experienced growth in 2020.

We were also challenged spiritually, for those of us who value that aspect of our lives. Gone was the comfort of an open worship service with predictable elements such as communion, singing and close connections with others (i.e. hugs and handshakes). We were challenged to find new ways to worship. New ways to connect with God. And new ways to connect with other believers. If we were successful, then we grew as individuals and as congregations.

Grit is defined as the “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals”. It is what empowers you to live life like a marathon rather than a sprint. Psychologist Angela Duckworth has completed extensive research on a variety of groups of individuals to conclude that grit is the single most important factor in success. Let’s face it, most of us who have grown up in the United States over the last 75 years have had life pretty easy. Since the conclusion of WWII we have not faced wars of the magnitude of WWI or WWII. We have not experienced any economic crisis like the Great Depression. There have certainly been smaller global conflicts that have impacted our military personnel. There have been less severe economic downturns, and there have been localized natural disasters. However, there has not been an event that impacted the entire nation the way the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted us. I believe that our society had lost a lot of grit over the 3-4 generations since WWII ended in 1945. We had not been challenged by anything that impacted our health and welfare, our economic stability or our daily routines so dramatically since 1945.

As a school board member, I have spoken to many teachers who have seen a steady decline in the willingness and/or capacity for grit in the classroom. High school coaches report seeing a steady decrease in the willingness and/or capacity for grit on the field of competition. Jean Twenge from San Diego State University said this, “Many college faculty and staff report a noticeable fragility among today’s students. Some describe them as ‘teacups’ – beautiful, but liable to break with the slightest drop”. Employers have reported a decline in work ethic from the willingness/ability to show up to work to the willingness/ability to work hard when on the job. How did we get here? Among other reasons, I believe it is because we have not been strengthened by hard times. This has allowed us to have too much time to focus on pleasure. Our priority has been on our own pleasure and the pleasure and easy life of our children. This focus has not been good for our kids, long term, and has not adequately prepared them to handle challenges that life can throw their way. A great book if you are interested in reading more about this challenge for our children is “The Collapse of Parenting” by Dr. Leonard Sax.

The various ways that the pandemic has impacted our children are vast and will likely impact them for the rest of their lives. Students have had to navigate virtual education and figure out how to be more self-directed in their learning. They have had to endure the ‘teaching’ of parents who were neither educated to teach nor prepared to help their kids with online schooling. Even if students have returned to in-person learning there have been many changes to their daily schedule, in-classroom and out-of-classroom activities and social interaction. Many beloved after-school activities have been suspended or severely modified. Disappointment abounds for students and their parents. However, the opportunity to develop grit is all around us and our children. This generation of children has an opportunity to learn how to live with disappointment. This generation of children has an opportunity to learn how to be flexible thinkers and resilient individuals. This generation of children has an opportunity to reduce their focus on their own pleasure and become more aware of the health, financial struggles and needs of others. This generation of children has the opportunity to develop ‘grit’ which will help lead them to bigger and better things.

Finally, Character. Personal character is defined as a group of traits and/or attitudes that make someone a “good” person. They might include trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, kindness, generosity, integrity, loyalty, devotion…etc. For over 100 years character has been slowing getting replaced by personality. When industrialization became more prominent than farming and people moved to more urban areas to get jobs, a person’s character was not as easy to assess. You no longer knew a person all of your life. You no longer knew their family and the family’s reputation. A handshake agreement no longer was a wise idea. Personality became the way to get ahead. If you had a winning and persuasive personality you could convince someone to agree with you, align with you, even give you what you needed/wanted. In the midst of this societal shift, Dale Carnegie came along to teach men of that day how to sell things. His philosophy was “if you believe it 51%, sell it as if you believe it 100%”.

So where are we today? I have had many people tell me recently something to this effect, “I don’t care about the person’s character as long as I like what they are selling”. The underlying problem with this philosophy is, how can you trust what they are selling if you don’t know their character? How can you trust they will follow through on what they are selling if you don’t know their character? How can you feel assured that what they are selling is not self-serving and will hurt you more in the long run?

Dr. Sax makes a point in his book “The Collapse of Parenting” that 50 years ago our popular culture celebrated the lives of ordinary people in television shows like “I Love Lucy” and “The Andy Griffith Show”. He said “They were good role models for children, because they were good people. Today, popular American culture – especially the culture of children and teenagers- celebrates famous entertainers or would-be entertainers”. This sends a message to our children that character is much less important than fame, fortune and having a big personality.

It is my hope and dream that the events of 2020 have shown us that personality alone does not solve tough problems. Personality is not a solid rock on which to stand. It does not empower the individual to navigate tough times nor does it inspire or enable that person to help others through those challenges. Our society’s ‘personalities’ have been largely side-lined in 2020 as concerts and large ticket events have been banned. Athletes have either had events cancelled or a severely limited number of spectators. Film and stage has been severely impacted as well. My suspicion is that those personalities who also have character have been able to be flexible and resilient through this crisis. Those who lacked underlying character have not. Amazingly, we have somehow managed to survive without a strong influence from these personalities in our lives. We have spent less time at events and more time at home; less time with our noses glued to the television and more time focusing on our families. May we use this to find a better balance between character and personality as we move forward.

How about within each of us?? Has our character grown and been strengthened or has our lack of character become apparent? This is a great time of year to take that self-assessment. Have you been satisfied with the way you handled yourself through the challenges of 2020? Were you kind and respectful of other’s positions? Were you dependable and loyal in your relationships even if you were in disagreement with their values and opinions? Were you generous toward others who had needs you could help meet? Did you reorganize your priorities to be more in line with your core values? Character is not something we are born with or that naturally grows within us. We have to nurture good character through wise decisions and concerted effort. It is largely motivated by behavior that has made us feel embarrassed or ashamed. This brings to our awareness a need to change and the desire to work to make it happen. I dare say that in 2020 we have each thought some things, felt some things – even done some things – for which we are not proud. Let us make a decision to work on growing our character, as a result, and put the effort into making a change. Let’s put character in front of personality. Here’s a real challenge…what say we put character in front of our own comfort? I believe it was Pastor Rick Warren who said “God cares more about our character than our comfort”. We can see in the Gospels that Jesus lived that statement out to it’s fullest.

Again, Happy New Year! And welcome to 2021 – may we decide to utilize it as another year for growth, grit and character building!!

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