I feel like the older I get, the better I get—more experiences under my belt, better understanding of the world around me. And part of that aging process has involved—for lack of a better phrase, forgive me—personal development.

Ick, it smacks of self-help books and optimism.

But what I mean by personal development is the motivation to change myself—to become better.

To respond with kindness instead of rudeness; to put myself last instead of first; to (God forbid) see problems as opportunities.

Isn’t it strange and wonderful and a little terrifying that we play such a powerful role in shaping and determining our own personalities? If we’re too passive, we’re carried along in life without much growth except what’s thrust upon us by life’s adverse circumstances. But at the same time, we have the ability to shape ourselves.

In the Victorian era, people were interested in the idea of virtue—attaining it, growing it, cultivating their personalities to become more gentle, more kind, more forgiving. In books like Jane Eyre, a plain, poor governess like Jane could shape her own reality—if not rich, she could be rich in morality; if not beautiful, she could have a beautiful spirit.

Today, these terms feel stuffy and buttoned up—no one really wants to become rich in morality. It sounds boring, doesn’t it? Or at least somehow oppressive.

But I think that the things we often perceive as boring or cliché—a steady job, a house filled with family, a life partner to bicker and grow with—can be unexpected sources of joy and fulfillment. There’s a reason why a house in the suburbs, with a spouse and kids, is such a common route in life. It’s because, oftentimes, it’s worth it. (Or at least, I think it must be. I was the beneficiary of one such arrangement, and I can report that I had a happy childhood.)

Think of today’s most popular YA book series—The Hunger Games (ick), Divergent (double ick.) In these stories, the characters are not on any kind of moral journey. They’re reacting to events that occur around them. And I’m not saying that this automatically makes them bad stories. Some incredible, compelling stories are all about the plot.

But in the best stories, characters grow and change and go through their own crucible of shapeshifting, until they emerge on the other side with virtue and strength.

I’ll admit that most of Harry Potter involves passive reacting to events out of Harry’s control, but by the seventh tome, the crux of the matter (lol) comes down to Harry’s own willingness to sacrifice himself for the good of the wizarding world. He has a choice, that is, and it’s a choice that carries immense repercussions. In the end (SPOILERS AHEAD—but really, it’s been 10 years, come on), Harry chooses to sacrifice himself, a decision he arrived at only because of the trials he went through in his life. His crucible—his parents’ deaths, his loveless childhood, Voldemort’s plots, the loss of Sirius—forced him to grow and change. Harry overcomes the trials in his life and gains virtue through them—courage, the ability to act in spite of his crippling fear; a commitment to honesty and truth (despite Umbridge’s attempts, Harry cannot and will not keep silent about the truth); and ultimately, selflessness, borne from the original selflessness of his own mother and the realization that he alone has the ability to defeat Voldemort, and he alone can break his grasp on the wizarding world.

If that’s not personal development, then I don’t know what is. (There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.)

Even in Lord of the Rings, where massive machinations take place across hundreds of miles, and great powers struggle for control of the world, the story truly boils down to one little hobbit’s character—his endurance, his fortitude, his sacrifice. His willingness to give his own life so that his friends can have spring in the Shire again.

Frodo does not reach Mordor because of the events happening around him—he reaches it in spite of them. And his perseverance—his ability to walk straight into Mount Doom, knowing full well that he probably won’t make it home—is what saves Middle Earth.

One of my favorite examples of growth in any fictional work is Zuko’s story in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Zuko loses everything—his honor, his family. His sense of self-worth is twisted into a broken need to regain his father’s acceptance. Throughout the series, Zuko struggles to find himself. Will he follow his father’s example, or will he find his own way? It’s only after striving and failing and hurting the ones he loves that Zuko is able to define himself as his own person. He rejects his father’s arrogance and gains one of the most powerful virtues of all—empathy.

The point I’m trying to make is that life is more interesting, more full, and more rewarding when we face our challenges, our trials, and attempt to wrestle some sort of growth from them. It’s not easy, of course (most anything worth doing never is.) In my day-to-day life, it’s a constant battle to see each person and say, This is Christ. This is my neighbor. I have to constantly remind myself that I must love others as Christ loves me, and most of the time I completely fail.

BUT (and this is a big butt—wait, what?)—each of these failures stacks up, and I can learn from them. When I treat my roommate badly, or whine about something at work, I can step back and realize my shortcomings. And next time I feel wronged, or self-righteous, and start mounting my attack, I can find that broader perspective (the one that says, “How rare and beautiful it truly is that we exist”) and learn to let it go. I can change, go through my crucible, and come out the other side with a little more patience, a little more kindness, and a little more empathy.

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