My Billy announced at breakfast this morning, “I’ve decided I’m going to get an A+ in character!” And I believe him! To him character means getting tough. He’s going to power through this cancer and stroke in good condition because “I’ve got things to do.”

It’s in Bill’s nature to fix anything that’s broken and, apparently, this includes his own body. He used to be in the Seabees and took to heart its motto, “Can do!” Whatever the obstacle, figure out how to fix it with whatever resources you have at hand. Powering through is his specialty, duct tape is his weapon!

I’ve heard the cliché many times when people complain about how hard something is. Inevitably, someone pipes up with “It’ll give you character!”, like toughening up is a good thing. (Personally, I’m taken with the much more colorful terms “man up” or “grow a pair”.) But the word “character” is neither good nor bad, but more of a summation of personality traits — the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual. People are referred to as characters if they’re unusual or quirky — maybe sometimes a little bit crazy — because they’re more interesting and dare to be different. I’ve always kind of admired them because conforming to the norm nags at me relentlessly. Grrrr….

If building character means learning to tough it out, give me a C- , maybe D. I grew up smooth. No major ruffles that I can remember, but I consider myself to be a decent and moral human being. A person of good character.

A few more character-building situations in my youth would’ve been helpful, though, because I don’t do adversity well. Life, after all, does have its blips. Maybe I was shielded from it all or maybe there just weren’t any. I do know there were subjects in my house that were never discussed — how much money my dad made, whether they voted for JFK, or if god existed for them are all a mystery to this day. You just did what you were supposed to do. Case closed. This suppression of expression is probably what gave me the ability now to say out loud what people are thinking but are afraid to say. In my own way I am tough, but with words.

If tough is what we want more of, this past year provides lots of good practice. Coping with the COVID-19, wildfires, floods, racial injustice, political upheaval and racism is bound to build our collective characters. Adjusting to having the kids home 24/7, losing jobs, sanitizing our world, wearing masks — and putting up with those who won’t — is hard enough, but watching our homes and the memories inside go up in flames can change who you are. I could go on, but the point is character. Will we all have more of it once the dust settles? Will we all be stronger than ever or just a quivering mass of jello?

I do admire those self-reliant souls who can “handle” any situation, but pushing myself to do things that I dislike or fear is just not in my DNA. Besides, what’s so great about powering through no matter what? Why do we applaud people who treat their lives as if they’re always competing instead of enjoying? They might be tough, but biting the bullet doesn’t make them kinder, more caring, or more honest.

Once I passed the peak of my life and started descending the other side, struggling back up just seems crazy. Why make life harder than it already is?