How to build character





What does not kill you makes you stronger. Every cloud has a silver lining. Turn that frown upside down. The darkest hour is just before the dawn.

Sprout any of these tired cliches to someone who’s in the middle of a tough time and you risk being punched in the face. Even if they don’t actually punch you, they’ll want to.

Yes, it’s a basic human instinct to try and cheer up someone when they’re miserable. Partly, we’re motivated by a genuine desire to comfort someone we care about. But there’s also a heavy dose of our own discomfort when confronted with another person’s distress or disappointment. It can be difficult to just let them sit with it, even if they want to.

Years ago, we went to an auction for our dream home. The bidding bolted away from us in the first minute and we left before the hammer even came down. I felt gutted. I’d already moved all our furniture in and lived the next 10 years of our lives there. In my mind. So when my husband gently said, “Don’t worry, it wasn’t meant to be. We’ll find something better” I lost it. “What are you talking about! Someone else just bought our house! The house where we were going to have our BABIES who are now HOMELESS even if they’re not BORN YET! Stop pointing out the silver lining! Let me look at the cloud for a minute!”

He was right, though. We eventually did find something better and I would never compare such a privileged problem to the real trauma of losing a loved one or having your heart broken or dealing with a serious illness or being fired.


The point is that wisdom is impossible without hindsight so it’s futile to rush anyone towards the silver lining while they’re still immersed in the fog of the cloud.

The truly dark times I’ve experienced however, with hindsight, have been …. what’s the word, instructive?  I know that can sound eye-pokingly Pollyana but clichés are clichéd because they’re true and most people, if asked, will be able to pinpoint something positive that came out of something ghastly. Even Kevin Rudd recently alluded to the past 12 months as being ‘character building’.

One 25 year-old I know was badly affected by her parents’ divorce when she was a kid. Only recently, she was struck by a simple truth, if her parents hadn’t split, she wouldn’t have her beloved brother, born after her father remarried.

Another friend says her destructive relationship with food has turned out to be a strange gift. After years of bingeing and dieting prompted her to see a psychologist, she realised it was all linked to the abusive relationship she was in. “I learned that when my eating went haywire, it was a barometer to how I was feeling. I got out of that relationship, started listening to my body and food turned out to be the doorway to insight and acceptance. Who knew?”

But relationship breakdowns and eating disorders are different to death. I have several friends who have lost babies and I would never ask them if that tragedy brought wisdom or positivity. Some things just don’t.

As one wise friend puts it, “There are some things you can’t fully recover from and trying to find the silver lining is an act of desperation. Some things are tragic and whatever we might learn from them is not worth the pain of the lesson.”

Meshel Laurie

Those with a strong faith are perhaps able to derive some comfort from simply believing every setback is God’s will. Any kind of spirituality can help to some extent. Comedian and broadcaster Meshel Laurie recently wrote a beautiful post on Mamamia about how grateful she was to have the framework of Buddhism to help her through the day she had to put down her beloved dog. “As a former non-religious person, I just don’t know how I’d have lived through today without the Buddhist structure and explanation. At its best, religion is a framework that holds us together when it seems we will shatter into a million pieces, it’s an instruction manual for navigating life’s most frightening mysteries, it offers reasons when it all seems so unfair.”


Religious, atheist or somewhere in between, not everyone finds solace that way. Others speak of friendships deepening, finding an unexpected inner strength, appreciating their family or reassessing their priorities. Some say a bad experience shone a spotlight on their life and helped them see what needed to change.

One friend did exactly that after losing her job in the GFC. “It revealed a truth I’d been ignoring, namely that I was in a dead-end relationship.  A few months after my redundancy, I left that relationship of five years and soon afterwards, I met my husband.”

Ah yes. It’s no coincidence that lousy relationships often precede brilliant ones. Jobs too. It’s almost like focusing a non-digital camera. Remember those? You have to go too far until things are blurry and then you can come back into focus. Or, as Ernest Hemingway famously wrote: The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.

Have you had a negative experience that taught you something? What events have built your character?