My father had a saying in my childhood: Adversity builds character. That tenet doesn’t rear its head in many contemporary parenting manuals, but when I was pregnant for the first time, someone asked me what I wanted for my child. Health and happiness, of course, but I also wanted to nourish a rich inner life for her. I couldn’t say exactly what that might mean, and my daughter has since said – more than once – “I’m sick of hearing about that inner life thing.” But when the time came (unexpectedly, as it perhaps always might) to draw on my own inner resources, I found those waters far sweeter and infinitely more plentiful than I ever could have imagined.
To my father’s advice, I might add Malcolm Gladwell’s exhortation to have blink, to keep your eyes savvy and parse up the scenario. These two come together, it seems to me, in this holiday season – which is, after all, in part the story of parenting. Despite our culture’s commodification, Christmas is the sacred innocent babe in the manger full of straw, his young parents turned away from the inn in their painful hour of need: literally, at the birth of their child. Born under an auspicious star, with a destiny to suffer enormous adversity, the story of this child of the wandering poor might impel us to reexamine the abandoned and dusty outbuildings of our lives, searching for what we least expect – perhaps even what we may not want – and search the starry heavens, looking for counsel.
You may write me down in history With your bitter, twisted lies, You may trod me in the very dirt But still, like dust, I’ll rise… – Maya Angelou