Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen are the most heroic teens of contemporary literature: I know you all know Harry, but if you don’t yet know Katniss you will soon, because her adventures in The Hunger Games will soon be feature films.
The lives of these heroes are at first glance and to many ways of looking at them, simply, miserable and horrific. Harry, we all know, spends his seven years of school fighting to save his life and reputation from the death-eaters and from he who shall not be named.
Katniss must fight for her life in her society’s fatal, fight to the death version of teenage Survivor: a wall of fire overwhelms her as she is trapped in a tree; she is stung all over by killer tracker jacker bees; she has hallucinations of ants boring into her eyes; and she is attacked by horrifying mutant mutt-wolves.
Why do these heroes generate so much fascination? Surely there are many reasons, but among the most important is that we envy and are admiring of their struggle. How can that be? How can that be? How can we envy their struggle?
Remember that feeling hiking and rock climbing at Mt. Lemmon, looking up, and thinking how am I possibly going to do this? Remember feeling the pressure of your major English paper on MacBeth and Flannery O’Connor, or preparing for the great debates of your Civics class. How did you feel as you faced these challenges, and how did you feel when you completed them?
The New York Times last week published an article which posed the following questions:
“Why did couples go on having children even though the data clearly showed that parents are less happy than childless couples? Why did billionaires desperately seek more money even when there was nothing they wanted to do with it?”
The article explains that the University of Pennsylvania professor of Psychology, Marty Seligman, who is the guru of “positive psychology,” has revised his analysis of what is most important to pursue in life:
[It is] the feeling of accomplishment which contributes [especially] to what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia, which roughly translates to “well-being” or “flourishing.” It is among what he defines as the five crucial elements of well-being, each pursued for its own sake: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment.
Mr. Roberts, our long-time Dean of Students and also, importantly for this class, the father of Jake, gave a beautiful talk recently to our graduating seniors. He was introduced for that talk by Dr. Morris, who said that we who are among the fortunate few often say that we should do more in our lives to help people who have fewer opportunities than our own, and, Dr. Morris pointed out, Mr. Roberts is one of the rare persons who, through his life-long dedication to the children of Kenya, truly walks that walk.
In his talk, Mr. Roberts asked
Where do you find the spark or ‘fire in the belly?’ The important thing is not meeting the expectations of others, it is about meeting the expectation of the person that matters most, meeting your expectations. It’s about living a fulfilling life.
The fire comes from your struggle. This is an individual exploration into one’s rock bottom core and finding out what is there. It is about peeling away the layers of protection, lifting each one to see what is below. In doing so the lessons are self taught, the experiences profound, and you discover an inner strength that is your core; your ‘it’. First, however, you must find your struggle.
Did you know that when NASA selects astronauts, they “rejected people with pure histories of success and instead selected people who had significant failures and bounced back from them.” The reason is that NASA wants people who are not afraid to struggle, and who will not be defeated by the struggle but empowered by it.
This attitude is a core element of what Stanford Professor Carol Dweck calls the “growth mindset,” which stands in stark contrast to the fixed mindset. Children with the fixed mindset, even, or especially the smartest children with the fixed mindset, “want to make sure they succeed, and don’t want to expose their deficiencies” by experiencing struggle. But what I wish for you is the growth mindset, and “that you don’t just seek challenge, you thrive in it.”
8th graders, as you anticipate high school, know that you will have many opportunities for pleasure and delight and that you will benefit from wonderful encouragement: we who are your parents and your teachers and your friends all are deeply committed to supporting you for yourjoy and success.
But know too that your greatest success, your greatest eudaimonia, your greatest accomplishment will come those times when you have to work through a struggle. Rather than resisting or resenting them, seek challenges and, as Mr. Roberts says, Find your struggle. Seek the harder class, seek the more challenging project, seek the more demanding community service or travel program or job.
8th graders, ahead of you there may still be your Voldemort and your Hunger Games, and certainly I don’t wish them upon you—but don’t live your life avoiding risks and refusing to accept challenges. Seek in your schooling and in your life growth, struggle, self-knowledge, and accomplishment, and you will be most successful in your goals and you will find yourself flourishing with the greatest sense of fulfillment.
Congratulations 8th graders ; now onto high school!