catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 13 :: 2011.07.08 — 2011.07.21


Comfort my people

And the livin’ is easy:
Fish are jumpin’,
And the cotton is high.
Oh, your daddy’s rich
And your mama’s good lookin’,
So hush, little baby,
Don’t you cry.

Comfort may not be all it’s cracked up to be. 

In her article “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” psychologist Lori Gottlieb details a growing trend of kids who have apparently had it all — caring parents, above average provisions, a youth free of tragedy — pursuing counseling as young adults because they’re just not happy.  As the mother of a young child herself, Gottlieb can’t help but view the trend as a personal cautionary tale.  She writes,

Was it possible these parents had done too much?  Here I was, seeing the flesh and blood results of the kind of parenting that my peers and I were trying to practice with our own kids precisely so that they wouldn’t end up on a therapist’s couch one day.  We were running ourselves ragged in a herculean effort to do right by our kids — yet what seemed like grown-up versions of them were sitting in our offices, saying they felt empty, confused, and anxious.  Back in graduate school, the clinical focus had always been on how the lack of parental attunement affects the child.  It never occurred to any of us to ask, what if the parents are too attuned?  What happens to those kids?

At the time of this writing, Gottlieb’s article had been recommended on Facebook over 51,000 times.  Not only is comfort not all it’s cracked up to be; it might just be an epidemic disaster.

The privileged class around the globe has become a society with the resources to approximate pockets of utopia within a deeply broken world.  Our lavish homes in gated communities are safe havens and the school principal is just a phone call away.  If we have the capacity to do this for our children — to protect them from uncomfortable feelings like disappointment, want, fear and failure — why wouldn’t we?  Dan Kindlon, another psychologist, explains to Gottlieb that too much sheltering prevents kids from developing “psychological immunity.”  “It’s like the way your body’s immune system develops…,” he says.  “You have to be exposed to pathogens, or your body won’t know how to respond to an attack.  Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle.”  Jeff Blume, another psychologist, chimes in, too: “A kid needs to feel normal anxiety to be resilient.”

As someone who’s not a parent, I’m not sure how I would approach this issue with a child, but paying attention to this trend does help me diagnose moments of self-pity and malaise in myself.  My parents were far from the “helicopter parents” Gottlieb describes in her article.  In fact, I think they hit just the right balance between freedom and limitations for me.  They loved and encouraged me, but let me experience the consequences of my own mistakes.  Though my mom sometimes laments the limitations of their income in providing certain opportunities for their four children, it was good for me to experience unfulfilled desires.  Now, at 31 years old, the choice to live simply just makes sense to me, because when I look back on my childhood, I’m not struck by a sense of wanting more than we had.

But I’m still left with tangled questions, emerging from a sense of what I lack because I’ve rarely experienced deep, circumstantial difficulty in my life. What’s the difference between imposed suffering and intentional discomfort when it comes to formation?  How can those who have experienced relatively little suffering in their lives, like myself, cultivate compassion — an ability to “suffer with?” Blume and Kindlon seem to be prescribing some measure of suffering as necessary for becoming a healthy adult, but was it really the Creator’s intention that suffering would be required to build character and resilience?  I know enough people who would gladly exchange a measure of their daily suffering for a little less character to believe there are simple answers here.

The recent data seems to bear out that when the livin’ is too easy, brokenness reaches us in other ways.  (Wallace Stegner’s novel A Shooting Star creates a brilliant picture of this pattern, decades ahead of Gottlieb’s assessment.)  Among people of faith, the malaise of the privileged will ideally give way to practices that engender compassion. Within the call to follow a suffering servant seems to be not a prescription for discomfort, but a description: it will come.  Rich or poor, pampered or neglected — if you are on the side of justice with the oppressed and the side of love with the rejected, it will come.  But, whether a cross has been provided for us or we’ve yet to pick ours up, the promise of “God with us” is the same.

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