The development of character is not simply doing the right thing nor is it “doing your own thing” and being “a character.” We develop our character as we actively engage in conflict with other characters.
One Tuesday afternoon on the playground after rest time, preschoolers Riley, Sarah and Anya were discussing what to play. They all decided that they wanted to be sisters, but became stuck when they had to figure out who would be what sister. Riley wanted to be the baby sister and both Sarah and Anya wanted to be the medium sister. They both ran up to Ms. Margaret, upset.
“I want to be the medium sister and Anya wants to be the medium sister, too, and I’m really a medium sister!” wailed Sarah, who really had a big sister, Laurel, and a brand-new baby sister, Cecilia.
“But I want to be the medium sister, too, and it’s not fair!” exclaimed Anya.
“Well, how could you solve this problem? Maybe you could both be the medium sister?” said the wise teacher, channeling King Solomon.
“But we can’t both do it! Then there would be nobody to be the big sister and you can’t have two medium sisters and no big sister!” cried Sarah. She had a point.
“Yeah! We need a big sister and I want to be the medium sister, too!” shouted Anya.
“Well, maybe you need another person in your game, then,” said Margaret.
Sarah and Anya both looked around the yard. Both girls’ eyes stopped on Meghan who was carefully trying out a new trick, crawling from picnic bench to picnic bench right nearby.
Sarah nudged Anya. “Maybe Meghan wants to be a sister with us?”
“Yeah!” cried Anya.
“Meghan, do you want to play with us?” called Sarah.
“Um, okay! Just let me finish my trick,” Meghan said to the two older girls.
Meghan crawled to the end of the bench and jumped off. Sarah grabbed her hand and the three of them ran off to baby sister (Riley). As they were running off, Sarah said, “Come on, Meghan! You get to be the big sister, me and Anya are medium sisters and Riley’s the baby sister.”
Nobody likes conflict; and yet conflict is the engine of learning. Character does not grow like a flower—all you have to do is water it; character develops in adversity. The self of Emerson’s Self-reliance needs disagreement, disappointment and “No.” Emerson recognized that the struggles life presents are the opportunities to develop one’s character.
Difficulties exist to be surmounted. The great heart will no more complain of the obstructions that make success hard, than of the iron walls of the gun which hinder the shot from scattering. It was walled round with iron tube with that purpose, to give it irresistible force in one direction. A strenuous soul hates cheap successes.
Emerson saw the pursuit of happiness as existing in the tension between an irresistible force meeting an immovable object and creating something new and often better out of the tension between the two. Character (the self-that-is-becoming) is the result of a dynamic relationship between the self and its environment, a tension which educates both the self and others, a conflict which creates new (and often wonderful) moments that have never before existed in the world.
Out in the yard when Anya, Riley, Meghan and Sarah had that character-building moment, something else happened, too. As each was working for herself, empathy caused love to get involved, and justice prevailed. Even though there is no objective truth to the idea that Riley is the little sister, it was truly a beautiful moment.
EMBRACING CONFLICT AS A CREATIVE OPPORTUNITY IS ONE WAY TO BRING OUT THE GENIUS IN ALL OF US.
I’ve never seen a child under seven who merely existed. Children live. I am not saying they “know how to live;” no one knows that. They just act as if they know that their job is to learn how to live and that the best way for them to learn that is just to go ahead and live, learning as they go, growing that little thing inside them—their character. Embracing conflict as a creative opportunity is one way to bring out the genius in all of us.