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Sherri Richards, Published January 26 2013

Dealing with difficulties may be dependent on culture

FARGO - We all struggle. Intellectually, emotionally, physically.

We struggle to understand. We struggle to make ends meet. We struggle through an excruciating workout, or cancer treatment.

But is this struggle a sign of weakness or strength? Is struggle virtuous or ruinous?

It depends heavily on your culture.

A recent piece on NPR explored the differing views of intellectual struggle in the East and the West.

“I think that from very early ages we (in America) see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart,” Jim Stigler, a professor of psychology at UCLA, said in the NPR story. “It’s a sign of low ability – people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”

In Japanese classrooms Stigler has studied, teachers assign tasks just beyond the grasp of their students, so students can experience struggle, he says. American schools don’t create enough of those experiences, Stigler says, or point out the value of hard work and struggle.

Dennis Cooley, a philosophy professor at North Dakota State University in Fargo, says the totality of life’s struggles is viewed differently in Eastern and Western cultures.

The Western world often puts focus on the end result, Cooley says. So we struggle to succeed, but the important thing is we achieve success – often defined as wealth and material possessions – not the path that got us there.

“In the Western world, you are not a success unless you beat whatever obstacle you face,” Cooley says. “If the person can’t overcome it, we see it as a failure on that person’s part. They’re not strong enough.”

In Asian cultures, the experience of struggle itself a success. “You don’t have to beat it, just fight it,” he says.

Struggle is necessary to learn, Cooley says. We only learn when we face an obstacle.

But there is a difference between “soul-building” and “soul-crushing” struggles, he says. If every time we struggle, we fail, we’ll simply stop trying.

That’s why Anna Thompson, a clinical counselor with the Village Family Service Center in Bismarck, says struggle in moderation can be a positive thing.

“I think that we learn such valuable lessons from the mistakes we make, the process of perseverance and hard work. It builds character and allows us to build self-esteem and figure out what our strengths and weaknesses are,” Thompson says.


Struggle can help people develop critical thinking skills, Thompson says. But, she notes, today’s younger generation may not be given this chance.

There’s the phenomenon of “helicopter parents,” who don’t allow their children to experience natural consequences, i.e., to struggle.

“They struggle later in life because they haven’t had the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and figure things out on their own,” she says.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are parents who push perhaps too hard, such as the parenting techniques described in the 2011 book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”

While some children may thrive in that environment, others might crumble. The level at which struggle is moderate versus too great a burden varies by individual, Thompson says.

Thompson notes that there is a stigma that comes with struggle, at least among youth. A lot of kids she works with are mortified at the idea of asking for help with school work, she says. They’d rather hide their struggle.

That stigma carries forward into adulthood in some ways. Struggling in workplace can be seen as a weakness, potentially leading to devastating consequences like being fired.

In the NPR piece, Stigler recalls observing a fourth-grade math class in Japan where the child who was struggling with a task was called to the blackboard. He tried repeatedly, and when he finally completed it, the class broke out in cheers.

Stigler notes that a collective culture of encouraging and cheering people through their struggles would likely make kids here more willing to struggle.


The Rev. Stephanie Tollefson, a pastor at Fargo’s Hope Lutheran Church, views struggle as both a weakness and a strength, in that strength is perfected in weakness, she says.

She points to Romans 5:3-5: “… We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

In counseling people experiencing struggle, Tollefson sees a vast difference between those who approach the struggle with hope, and those without hope – whether it’s hope they can overcome the struggle on Earth, or hope in something greater.

“The hope allows them to walk through the struggle in a much more meaningful, purposeful way than those that don’t have that sense of deep joy,” she says.

What does struggle look like for those without hope? “It’s a heavier load to bear. It’s sad. There’s a lot more grief and their grief doesn’t ever go away,” she says.

Tollefson notes that Christ struggled, emptied himself on the walk to Golgotha. “Why would we think we wouldn’t (struggle) if we follow in his footsteps?” she asks.

“For Christian people, how we respond to the struggle and the strife of life is a testament to what we believe will happen, whether it happens for me to witness or for you to see is irrelevant,” she says.

For Susan Stefonowicz, of Fergus Falls, Minn., how we respond to struggle is what matters.

Stefonowicz thinks of the struggle she faced nearly two decades ago, at a time she wanted children so badly she says she would cry every time she saw a playground.

Around that time, she found a lump in her breast.

“My prayers changed at that time. I stopped praying for my will to be done, but that God’s will be done instead, and for me to have the peace and strength to handle whatever the outcome might be,” she says.

She had surgery to remove the lump, which turned out to be non-cancerous. A week later, she found out she was pregnant.

Struggle makes us stronger, Stefonowicz says, and provides the opportunity to derive a lesson.

“I think everything is brought to us for some kind of learning experience,” she says. “I think everyone’s story in one way or another can help another person. What they can take from it, they can help someone else go through that same struggle, and empathize and raise that person up.”