Obstacles, Not Excuses

From the time that he was very young, we’ve known that our son had some challenges related to social anxiety and OCD. He gave me permission to write about this, but in the interest of protecting his privacy, I’ll just say that things like school and social interactions have been more challenging for him than for most people. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just a reality that we’ve discovered he was born with. It’s been very frustrating for him at times especially in his teenage years as he’s become more aware of some of his challenges. On more than one occasion, he has yelled in exasperation, “No one else seems to have this problem! Why is this so hard for me?!” In those moments, I try to remind him that he isn’t alone in having these kinds of challenges and he isn’t alone in dealing with them. I’m also quick to tell him how proud I am of his grit. And I am proud of him. He’s got a good and supportive group of knucklehead friends, and he finished this year with excellent grades. My son is a grinder, and I love him for it.

I’m not a great parent by a lot of metrics. I fall short in so many different ways, but I am convinced that one of the principles that a good parent tries to instill in his or her kids is that an obstacle doesn’t have to become an excuse. This has become a common refrain at our house, especially with my son. Obstacles aren’t excuses. Obstacles are opportunities. Like all clichés, it looks better on paper than in real life. These are hardly ever the opportunities that you wanted or asked for. They are often quite painful, and they are regularly unfair. But they must be regarded as opportunities because the alternative is to be overwhelmed by them.

Last week I was asked by a small group of high school graduates for advice as they entered college in the fall. Not surprisingly, I had a lot to say, but “obstacles, not excuses” was one of my pieces of advice. Several years ago Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff wrote a fantastic book called “The Coddling of the American Mind.” In the book, they highlighted three lies that college students are told which are undoubtedly setting them up for failure in life. The three lies are that you should always trust your heart, that life is all about a competition between very good and very evil people, and that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. Each one of those lies deserves much reflection, but this third lie in particular is setting up a whole generation to be fragile and perpetually aggrieved. If all hard things are regarded as dangerous threats, we will respond with retreating into what the authors call “safetyism.” The only way to flourish is to have every obstacle removed and every threat removed from our path. Of course, the reality is exactly the opposite. Safetyism doesn’t lead to flourishing; it leads to developmental atrophy.

Haidt and Lukianoff correctly highlight fragility as a consequence of this lie, but I think there is another consequence worth noting. This lie strips us of personal agency. Personal agency is a person’s ability to make free and independent choices. Personal agency is one of the things that gives individuals dignity and purpose. Personal agency is about the exercise of power. There are obviously times where our personal agency is curtailed. We must at times submit to those in authority like bosses or political leaders. At other times we submit to others out of a sense of obligation and love. For Christians, this certainly should be the case in the family and in the church (Eph. 5). The point is that there are times when we voluntarily choose to restrain our agency for reasons that we regard as justified. This submission that we are talking about is itself an exercise of personal agency.

There are two notable examples where we typically take personal agency from a person: parenting and incarceration. A parent and a prison guard use their power to strip others of personal agency because they don’t believe that the other person can be trusted with it. It’s probably not a great idea for society to give toddlers and serial killers complete freedom to exercise their personal agency. We’re trying to have a civilization here. Ideally, this removal of personal agency is temporary until either the child matures or the criminal is reformed. Especially in the case of parenting, it would be a massive failure if children are never allowed to grow up to make their own choices and take responsibility for their lives.

The problem with turning an obstacle into an excuse is that you strip yourself of any agency and you give power and responsibility over your life to some other party. And the people who are advising you to turn your obstacles into excuses are either treating you as an infant or as a prisoner. Either way, they don’t necessarily have your best interest in mind. They may say, and they probably believe, that they are only being compassionate, but they actually regard you as weak, fragile, and ineffectual. The unfortunate circumstances of your life warrant that you give up your personal agency to someone with more power who can make the path smooth in front of you. This surrender of personal agency strips a person of their dignity and their purpose. Even prisoners are encouraged to exercise certain amounts of personal agency and responsibility to retain their sense of meaning.

Haidt and Lukianoff observe that young people in our country are being set up to fail as people with power are advising them that life shouldn’t have any obstacles. If you do encounter an obstacle, it may be regarded as an excuse. My obstacle is someone else’s problem, but when your problems become someone else’s responsibility, that “someone else” also gains more control over your life. They take your agency from you. We now live in a culture where our ambition has turned from overcoming obstacles to hunting for excuses. It’s not my fault I can’t pay my bills. It’s not my fault I can’t pass my classes. It’s not my fault I can’t take care of my kids. And on and on. There are two results of this. First, we remain stuck, overwhelmed by our obstacles and never really able to make progress. Secondly, those with the most power and the most “privilege” are given even more power and privilege. They possess little incentive to actually make your life better because the longer they can keep you a victim, the more power they accrue. That’s a neat trick.

The concern from some people is that saying “obstacles aren’t excuses” sounds harsh and lacks compassion. It sounds like the heartless Ebenezer Scrooge. “Stop whining. Pull yourself up. Don’t bother me with your pitiful excuses.” I suppose that is a legitimate concern. There are always opportunities for people to dehumanize others and strip them of their dignity. Sometimes this happens when we try to help in ways that hurt. Other times this happens when we deny help to those who need it. Recognizing that obstacles aren’t excuses doesn’t excuse us from the need to help others as they are overcoming the obstacles in their lives. In fact, we have an obligation to help one another especially those in unjust circumstances. It is a virtue to use our personal agency and power to help others who need it, but here we notice another problem with turning obstacles into excuses. When we turn obstacles into excuses, it becomes easy to convince ourselves that because of our obstacles we have no obligation to help others in their distress. Our ever-present excuses strip us even of the agency needed to help others. Our fragility leads to calloused indifference. “How could I possibly help others with their obstacles? After all, I’m a victim myself.”

It’s not always a popular thing to say, but so much of life is about grit. Obstacles big and small are ever present for all of us, but it is left to us to decide whether those obstacles will become excuses or whether they will be opportunities. In my own challenges and obstacles, I try to remember that I’m not alone in having these kinds of challenges, and thank God I’m not alone in dealing with them.

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