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The American Mind

Antifragile

William Hillman

(11/2017) With one left hook, Eddie connected with my eye. I lunged into him, both of us falling to the blacktop school playground. On the ground, we continued to wrestle, throwing mostly harmless, ineffective punches. In a circle gathered around us were all of our classmates yelling words of encouragement and advice. At some point the fight just stopped. We both got up and went our separate ways, both declaring victory to our friends. The next day I had a black eye and Eddie had some scrapes. It was my first and only school yard fight. We were in 6th or 7th grade. I have no recollection of what started it, but I guess one of us insulted the other. What I do seem to recall, is both of us needed the fight to prove to our peers that neither of us would be pushed around.

By the following weekend, I was playing first base, Eddie was on second, and together we were turning double plays. Many years later, I would give Eddie a job during a period of his life when he was going through a tough spell. We remain friends to this day.

My fight with Eddie was not the only one that year. I seem to recall once a month someone was fighting someone else. One Friday, a bunch of us boys got together and jumped the biggest kid in the grade, Gene, who had been bullying us for years. But no one ever got hurt beyond some bruises and scrapes.

Looking back, I donít think these tussles were about who was stronger or even about winning and losing. They were a way of proving ourselves to each other. By the time we left that school in 8th grade we were all close friends. There were no clicks or cool guys or outcasts. At lunch time, there was no self-segregation of tables. Anyone was welcome to sit anywhere. Even today, 40 plus years later, we all look forward to those class reunions and everyone shows up.

Funny thing about big Gene. In high school, we were mixed with kids from a half dozen other elementary schools. Each year, one Friday was designated "Freshman Day" Ė a one day open season on Freshman by the upper class. The penalty for being a freshman was to be pinned down to the ground and covered with shaving cream. This particular Freshman Day, I found myself alone at the end of a corridor when four Seniors approached me, cans of shaving cream in hand. Quickly they overwhelmed me. As I was struggling to keep from being pinned, Gene shows up and grabs the biggest kid and pulled him off me, tossing him to the ground. All the other seniors scattered. As Gene covers this kid with shaving cream, he tells him, "Remember, if you mess with any of my friends, you mess with me." Fifteen years ago, when Geneís father passed away, every boy from that class came from around the country to attend the funeral.

There was a lot learned in those schoolyard tussles, which is lost on our kids today Ė the confidence to defend yourself, proving to your peers and yourself that you will not be bullied. And, in my case, that I could take a punch and would be okay. Gaining the confidence, at an early age, that you can defend yourself is incredibly powerful, and builds self-confidence like no other experience. We learned that we could deal with our problems by ourselves. Lastly, it taught us the confidence to take risks.

Donít get me wrong. I am not advocating that we should teach our kids that fighting is okay or send them out to fight as a rite of passage. But every time we increase the protective barrier around our kids, there is a price to pay.

The above story came to mind as I was reading Nassim Nicholas Talebís latest book, Antifragile. We spend a lot of time insulating our kids from harm. I am beginning to wonder if that is the right path. Taleb makes the argument that biological systems grow stronger with stress. Small illnesses stimulate the immune system and make it stronger. Exposure to small pain develops the bodyís ability to tolerate stronger pains. The medical community has been on this mission to inoculate us against all diseases and medicate us so we feel no pain. But that just makes us more fragile and increases the impact of diseases that they cannot predict.

And as for pain, if the body never develops a tolerance to pain, pain can kill. Not all the 13,000+ people who die each year from heroin started taking the drug because it sounded like "fun".

This is nothing new. Each day my local gym is filled with people lifting weights and putting stress on their body in an effort to make their bodies stronger. We know that a sedentary life with little to no physical stress leads to an early death.

What about mental and emotional stress? I think it is fair to ponder the idea that by attempting to eliminate all the normal stresses of childhood, we may be doing children a disservice as they grow into adulthood and leave the protection of the home.

We have a generation of kids who have been "protected" from name calling by bullies and given trophies for simply showing up to soccer, in an effort to be "protected" from the difficulty of losing. We sterilized our childhood from stress. Now that they are in college, this group feels they need safe places from opinions they disagree with. They lack the self-confidence to deal with anything outside of their narrow comfort zone. When they come in contact with things outside their narrow comfort zone, the impact on them can be emotionally devastating. (As evidence, look how this generation has dealt with the political loss of their candidate, Hillary Clinton. Their temper tantrum has been mind boggling.) Lastly, this generation has become a slave to the protective state because they are incapable of protecting themselves.

The desire of adults to eliminate stress from our children has stunted their growth and produced a fragile generation. We really need to think about this path we have started our children on.

Read other articles by Bill Hillman