Why Chicken Soup is Not Enough?

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So now you have heard about resilience, then what? It’s that time of the year. The season of graduation, for new start, and of course, commencement addresses. From Sheryl Sandberg’s resilience story to Obama’s caution against ignorance, my social media walls have been flooded with speeches as people eagerly draw lessons from inspirational speakers. I don’t deny their ingenuity and valuable sharing, but to be frank, I have been at best dismissive and at worst nonchalant to these chicken-soup style stories.

One of the most popular speeches is by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Yes, like what Sandberg said, resilience is a virtue and deeper gratitude is important (I mean that’s why they are virtues).  I know that hard days always exist, and I thank her for putting how to face hardships into handy acronyms of 3Ps. But how applicable are these lessons to you and me?

First, lessons like “resilience”, “finding gratitude and appreciation”, “kick against the bottom” etc are nothing new to us. Our parents, teachers, and books have nagged us on how to build a good character, how to face failures since kindergarten. Even if we miss that part or forget about those lifelong lessons, we can Google and at least for me, within 0.63 seconds, 27,600,000 results can come out by typing “how to face hardship”.  Well, maybe these speakers are more credible since they have achieved more conventional notions of success and are paid handsome sums to speak (some costs 35,000 dollars for a speech according to The Boston Globe).

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So it is agreed that we all know things they talk about, and I am sure Sandberg do as well, but why did all these reckonings dawned on her lately after her loss?  That’s because she had never experienced such level of hardship herself. In other words, without experiencing, one can’t truly know.  In her context, the level and subjects of gratitude and appreciation deepened as different kinds of hardships unfolded in her life — from breakup to frustration in job and her loss of husband. And Sandberg herself acknowledged that “is the greatest irony of my life that losing my husband helped me find greater gratitude”.

One simple example of such hindsight realization in my life is health. My parents always tell me health is the most important thing. I also know without health, I can’t do anything. When I get sore throat or cold, it is not surprising that I miss the days I can have a clear nose and swallow things without pain. When I discovered that I had two extra bones on my feet that might obstruct my walking at 8, I was horrified. Like Sandberg, I remembered myself crying while writing diary as the rain poured outside my room. To the young me, such plight was so unfair and unimaginable, and at that time, I was gripped with the fear of not being able to run again. Even years later when I take each stride and free my legs to run, I feel so grateful that I can sprint. I know you may feel empathy for me, but do you really feel that you relish days of bouncing and trouncing more? I bet not though you know one day you will. My point is, the level of
understanding can never be the same and by merely listening or even reflecting on others’ lessons, you couldn’t live a good life. We can never truly get the insights until or unless we ourselves become the actors.

What is a more fundamental issue is that there is also no causal relationship between virtues such as gratitude and achievement?  You don’t have to experience all those failures to get a lesson to succeed. There is more than one formula, if there is any, and there is no single ingredient. With a wide variety of conditions, the formula, made up even with all factors mentioned by these guest speakers, won’t work for everyone. Context matters. What has been shared is never the full picture, so you can’t tweak things like doing science experiments — change the variables while keeping the independent variables.

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All these been said, I do enjoy watching these speeches and read about their stories, for my voyeuristic instinct makes me interested in the “human” stories behind their success. However, I think people should not have the delusion that they have learnt the lessons just by watching and lose their critical thinking just because these people are successful by conventional standards.

A dose of comforting Chicken soup for the soul has to be taken with a pinch of salt. So is this bitter soup.

Quanzhi Guo

Quanzhi Guo

Quanzhi Quo is a sophomore at Colgate University. You can contact Quanzhi Guo at guoquanzhi321@gmail.com.

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