America Loses Her Thick Skin
When I was finishing my fourth year at the University of Virginia, there were several off-campus houses rented by men from various evangelical student organizations. Several friends of mine were in one of these houses, all good men, but whom one might say seemed a bit overeager in signaling their masculinity and toughness. Another friend, an ROTC cadet from rural, southern Virginia, decided one day to put them in their place. He snuck into their house, put cellophane over their toilet seats, and crucified a dead raccoon (which he had shot) to a wall, among other mischievous misdeeds.
For many college males, this would have incited a war of pranks. But not these guys. When they discovered who did it, they asked him to come over to the house. Then they sat him down and politely lectured him on his immature misbehavior. The country boy was incredulous, and quite nonplussed. His response, delivered with a thick Southern drawl I still vividly recall, carried an avuncular tone: “Y’all are going to experience some real tough shit in your lives,” he warned. “Y’all are gonna need some thicker skin.” The attempted intervention went off the rails, and ended shortly thereafter.
Thick skin. Or “skiyin,” if I’m to approximate that Virginia accent. After such a disgusting practical joke, it was an ineffective exhortation. Still, though his antics had undermined the probity of his words, they still carried an important truth, one all the more relevant 15 years later. Most everyone—even in America, still the most prosperous country in the history of the world—will encounter challenges, hardships, and even mistreatment at some point in their lives. The answer is not necessarily to remove such obstacles (some of which are incapable of being removed, or at least not without great cost), but to develop the resilience and courage to face them, suffer through them, and overcome them.
Yet our age increasingly urges, and even promises, a world where such suffering need not occur. Academic institutions from pre-K to graduate school offer safe spaces, trigger warnings, and aggressive anti-bullying campaigns. Parents employ whatever tactics are necessary to protect their children, earning such labels as “helicopter parents,” “snowplow parents,” and “payoff parents.” An entire industry has formed around “diversity and inclusion” officers, who not only seek to ensure racial and gender equality, but that all behavior (and even beliefs) perceived to be upsetting or offensive are stamped out. This attitude was perfectly communicated by British interviewer Cathy Newman in her now viral 2018 question to Jordan Peterson: “Why should your freedom of speech trump a trans person’s right not to be offended?”
Our culture, driven by progressivist ideology, has invested enormous resources in trying to outlaw bullying, intimidation, and any other behavior that might be found demeaning. Yet these efforts have only reoriented the misdeeds. Pennsylvania state representative Brian Sims—an outspoken defender of the LGBTQ community—bullied, intimidated, and tried to dox several pro-life protesters. The same students weaned on safe spaces and anti-bullying campaigns have harassed and assaulted academics and fellow students at schools like Middlebury, UC Berkeley, and Evergreen State College for not conforming to their leftist ideology. Perhaps rather than pursuing the elimination of hurtful speech or behavior (a naive, utopian objective if ever there was one), we would do better to equip persons to suffer through them—“stand[ing] up straight with your shoulders back,” as Peterson exhorts.
One person who had “thick skin” was Jesus. He consistently faced suffering head on. He warned his followers that they would suffer. In the Sermon on the Mount, he told the crowd: “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.” In time, He willingly endured the suffering of betrayal by his closest friends, a show trial engineered by religious and political elites, and his own execution. He quietly accepted Pontius Pilate’s mockery, the scourging at the pillar, the carrying of the cross, and an ignominious death, naked, before a jeering crowd.
Christianity is not aimed at eliminating suffering, at least not in this world. Indeed, after the resurrection, Jesus warned His disciples that the hardships would continue. He told Peter, “You will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.”
Rather, the Christian faith teaches that when it comes to suffering, it is less about “if” than “when.” It sees suffering as both instructive and as a means to higher goods, like courage.
These beliefs informed two millennia of a robust, unique understanding of suffering in the West, one that spurred its cultural and intellectual growth. The contributions of the monastic tradition, its monks engaging in severe penances alongside their labors, cannot be understood apart from a Christian concept of suffering. Nor can the West’s great artistic achievements, such as Notre Dame, which required the efforts of somewhere between six to eight generations to complete. Indeed, the men and women who worked on these great achievements willfully accepted suffering in the service of something greater.
Contemporary elites, however, have rebuked this paradigm in favor of seeking a “life without pain,” one that is likely to achieve little in comparison to their forebears. Such a fragile generation is incapable of combating the problems they face. My grandparents endured the Great Depression and World War II; my generation has trouble maintaining their participation in social media campaigns. This coddling is creating an entire age cohort of adult children who sneer at well-paying jobs that previous generations would have fought over. This aversion to suffering, in turn, leads people to deplore the smallest inconveniences. When the Starbucks app recently went down, customers complained of having to order at the counter “like it’s the dark ages” and “like a peasant.”
Whenever I’ve spent time with older men of the Silent or Baby Boomer generations, especially those who came from the working class (and often remained in it), I’m struck by how different they are. They have little interest in ensuring that they don’t hurt your feelings. Nor do they have time to get offended. Their respect for you increases exponentially when they either learn about or witness you suffering. It’s how they’ve had to live their own lives: withstanding bullying, injustice, and even violence. This enabled them to survive a century that “had rather more history than was good for it,” as Richard Rex has described it.
What they had, in a word, was “thick skin.” They learned it from their own fathers, who, like them, had grown up in a culture that understood that suffering makes the man. Indeed, that sort of suffering is embedded deep within the American founding and maturation, which saw men cross oceans, wander and labor in the wilderness, and, as was unfortunately often the case, be oppressed or exploited by their fellow Americans. In the not-so-remote past, even those on the receiving end of that suffering—be it African Americans, Chinese rail workers, or Catholic laborers—took a certain pride in their trials. Suffering formed, rather than undermined, their identities as Americans.
Only a culture that appreciates this time-honored truth is capable of surviving in a world filled with evil. Only a culture that encourages “thick skin” can navigate the political, social, and economic threats we will inevitably encounter. And only a culture that sees the good in suffering can properly orient its eyes to perceive how it is overcome, both here and forever. As the Apostle Paul writes, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative.