Grit and Godliness

Keith McCurdy, Loretta Lynn, and the Value of Struggle

Struggle is not a sign that something is wrong. Moreover, when we try to remove struggle from our lives, or from the lives of our children and students, we inadvertently consign them to emotional immaturity.

This was the message that Keith McCurdy gave when he talked with Brian Phillips for the Circe Institute podcast. McCurdy, who is President and CEO of Total Life Counseling in Roanoke, Virginia, explained how struggle has fallen on hard times. In his counseling work, McCurdy continually encounters parents who believe their calling is not to produce sturdy children but happy children. These parents will go to great lengths to try to keep their children perpetually comfortable.

McCurdy explains that trying to make children happy by keeping them comfortable is actually self-defeating since it leads to low levels of life satisfaction. Although this may be counter-intuitive, it makes sense if you think about it. Children who have not learned to embrace struggle will more likely be ruled by their emotions and will thus lack the durability that enables them to weather difficulties with sturdiness and competence. Moreover, children who have not been trained to embrace struggle will be more likely to go to pieces at the slightest difficulty. From McCurdy:

I ask groups of parents all the time at the beginning of a talk (and I say this is a question to be thinking about as we talk tonight): “would you rather have a child that’s sturdy and capable, or a child that's happy and successful?” And that really frames it because the two really go in two different directions if that's your target, because the way we target happiness and satisfaction today is not through struggle - it’s through clearing the path. But if we really target “sturdy and capable” then our children… experience more happiness through life, they experience more peace through life, more joy through life. And parents really struggle with that. But what I tell parents is this: unless we introduce struggle into the lives of their children, they will be run by their emotions.

McCurdy’s observations cohere with the latest clinical research. In her 2016 book Emotional Agility, Susan David shared a string of studies showing that the pursuit of happiness is self-defeating, because the higher people rank happiness in their list of objective goals, the more miserable they tend to be in daily self-evaluations.

Coal Miner’s Daughter

Historically, struggle and hardship have played an important role in American culture. This is reflected in much country music from the 60s and 70s. For example, Loretta Lynn's 1970s hit, “Coal Miner's Daughter,” celebrates the values of hard-working middle class Christians: 

Well, I was born a coal miner's daughter
In a cabin, on a hill in Butcher Holler
We were poor, but we had love
That's the one thing that daddy made sure of
He shoveled coal to make a poor man's dollar

The third and fourth verses tell how hard her parents worked to bring Christian values to the family even though it involved considerable struggle. Throughout the struggle, her father was never heard to complain. 

My daddy worked all night in the Van Lear coal mines
All day long in the field a hoin' corn
Mommy rocked the babies at night
And read the Bible by the coal oil light
And ever' thing would start all over come break of morn

Daddy loved and raised eight kids on a miner's pay
Mommy scrubbed our clothes on a washboard ever' day
Why I've seen her fingers bleed
To complain, there was no need
She'd smile in mommy's understanding way

Hardship, Christian Values, and the Work Week

The central role of positive hardship in country music makes sense given that a key influence in the style was the tough and rugged ethic of cowboy culture. But these songs were equally influenced by Christian values, particularly a type of down-home Christian culture which understood that there is a relationship between grit and godliness. Despite the perceived shallowness and unsophistication of this type of down-home religion, it reflected an important theological truth, which is that believers throughout the centuries have reminded us that the Christian life is actually supposed to be hard.

“Coal Miner's Daughter” reflects an entire corpus of country songs focusing on the work week. As with country classics such as Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues” (1969) and Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road” (1963), these songs reflect a value system in which hard work was a source of pride and dignity. 

The Pressure to be Happy

Today, struggle and hardship have fallen on hard times. According to modern sensibilities, hardship is not so much a source of dignity and pride, but an indication that something is wrong. In school, the media, and children’s television, we are constantly told to follow whatever makes us happy. As I wrote in Gratitude in Life’s Trenches,

It is now commonplace for children to grow up believing that a difficult life necessarily signals abnormality and dysfunction. Parents project the expectation of happiness onto their children, who then feel a great pressure to be happy. When the children are not happy or encounter difficulty, they easily lapse into depression, feeling that something must be wrong with them.

With these shifting parental expectations, country music has gradually changed to reflect the spirit of the age. Modern country songs routinely offer a very different message than what we find in Loretta Lynn's “Coal Miner's Daughter,” and which Keith McCurdy reflected in his talk with Brian Phillips

In a follow-up post, we will explore how themes in contemporary country music pander to our weaknesses, and have begun eschewing grit, sturdiness, and struggle in favor of comfort at all costs. 

Further Reading

has a Master’s in History from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. He has worked as a ghost-writer, in addition to writing for a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, and The Symbolic World. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020) and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023) and co-author with Joshua Pauling of We're All Cyborgs Now (Basilian Media & Publishing, forthcoming). He operates the substack "The Epimethean" and blogs at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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