Commentary Magazine


Dealing with Troughs is a Test of Character

George Will has a lovely tribute to his son Jon, who is a Washington Nationals fan who also happens to have Down syndrome.

Apart from his evident love and appreciation for his son, Will takes aim at the “full, garish flowering of the baby boomers’ vast sense of entitlement, which encompasses an entitlement to exemption from nature’s mishaps, and to a perfect baby.” He goes on to write about Jon’s gift of serenity. “With an underdeveloped entitlement mentality,” Will writes, Jon has “been equable about life’s sometimes careless allocation of equity. Perhaps this is partly because, given the nature of Down syndrome, neither he nor his parents have any tormenting sense of what might have been. Down syndrome did not alter the trajectory of his life; Jon was Jon from conception on.”

Here Will is touching on an enormous shift in human expectations that has occurred in modern times – the belief that we are owed, that we are entitled, to certain things, including a life very nearly free of hardship, of pain, and of loss. The reason for this shift is progress. In the West, we’ve seen fantastic gains made in medicine, technology, and standards of living. Early death was once a common feature; according to historian Lawrence Stone, during the Middle Ages, two or more living children were often given the same name because it was so common that at least one of them would die. Today, in America, early death is blessedly rare. We are also far less patient and far less willing to be inconvenienced than ever before. We forget that there was once a life before GPSs and ATMs; before iPhones, iPods, and iPads; before e-mails, Twitter, texting, Skype, Google, ESPN, and flat screen televisions.

We’ve all benefited from these gains in one way or another, and they have added new and comforting dimensions to our daily lives. Families are able to stay in close touch long after children have left home. Almost no one who is not Amish would voluntarily give up these things, and understandably so. But these advancements in material progress can bring their own challenges as well, including how to keep reasonable expectations when we have come to expect lives of comfort and ease.

It is easier than we like to admit that these days being dealt a hard blow in life is viewed as a cosmic injustice. Now this isn’t new; people have been embittered by life since the dawn of civilization. Great novels (like Moby Dick) have been written about such things. But one cannot help but suspect that we have higher expectations of life than past generations and therefore are less able to deal with deprivation and adversity with equanimity. That is why, I think, some of us hold a special place of honor for those who have faced tragedies and particular hardships with courage, without chronic self-pity, and with some measure of grace.

In C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, the senior devil (Screwtape) reminds the junior devil (Wormwood) that “one of our best weapons [is] contented worldliness.” Lewis – who later in his life absorbed a crushing blow when his wife died of cancer, which forced him to work through his own grief and doubts — then added this:

As long as [human beings live] on earth, periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it.

To decide what the best use of it is, you must ask what use the Enemy [God] wants to make of it, and then do the opposite. Now, it may surprise you to learn that in His efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks; some of His special favourites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else.

How we handle the inevitable troughs and the painful troughs and the unequal allocation of troughs is a test of character. They probably wouldn’t admit it, but by that measure, Jon Will and his parents have done pretty well.