“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!”
I must admit, I’m a collector of quotes.
And when you look at this one, you might think, “Is this guy really quoting Rocky?’
Yes. Yes I am. Because it speaks to me about a quality that I think is the strongest predictor of success there is.
Some other names for grit are resilience, perseverance, and tenacity, and essentially they all describe a similar quality. It's something in a person that doesn’t give up, even under the worst of circumstances.
I was thinking of all of this as I was reading about Muhammed Ali’s passing. This was a guy who didn’t fight between the ages of 25 and 29, the absolute peak of his physical career, because of his unwillingness to participate in the Vietnam War. His fans turned on him, boxing turned on him, and people assumed he would never again be what he once was.
But he fought his way through hell and became the champ again. That’s grit.
It’s easy to find examples of grit in famous people’s stories. We’ve all heard about Michael Jordan not making his High School basketball team, or maybe Ray Croc the founder of McDonald’s failing dozens of times before he made it. Those are feel good stories and they inspire people.
But the stories that really inspire me come from average ordinary people fighting their way through difficult circumstances. The single mother with the dream of going back to school, who somehow finds a way despite spinning 100 plates at a time. The widow who taught herself how to change a tire after her husband of 50 years passed away. The transgender kid who went to school every day despite getting mocked and spit on, and eventually got into one of the best colleges in the country.
But even beyond these stories, it’s important to remember that for some people just starting their car and backing out of the driveway to go to the grocery store can be a tremendous act of courage. That’s how hard the battle gets for a lot of people sometimes.
And that’s when the voice gets louder. You know the voice. The one that tells you you’re not good enough, or that you’re going to embarrass yourself, and in some cases that you don’t even deserve to live anymore.
It can be a hell of a thing dealing with that voice. Trust me as someone who has seen thousands of patients. And if you don’t want to trust that, believe me when I say I have a voice of my own. It’s like a self-sabotaging GPS in your head telling you, “Don’t try that”, “You’re too old for that,” “One day the world will find out you’re an imposter.” All of these “helpful” little tips that keep us stuck.
And yet people persevere.
I recently came across this vignette about suicide and resilience and “handing out sticks,” I wanted to share it here.
I don’t like the phrase “a cry for help”. I just don’t like how it sounds. When someone says to me, “I’m thinking about suicide, I have a plan: I just need a reason not to do it,” the last thing I see is helplessness.
I think: Your depression has been beating you up for years. It has called you ugly, and stupid, and pathetic, and a failure, for so long that you’ve forgotten that it’s wrong. You don’t see any good in yourself, and you don’t have any hope.
But still, here you are: You’ve come over to me, banged on my door, and said “Hey! Staying alive is REALLY HARD right now! Just give me something to fight with! I don’t care if it’s a stick! Give me a stick and I can stay alive!”
How is that helpless? I think that’s incredible. You’re like a marine: trapped for years behind enemy lines, your gun has been taken away, you’re out of ammo, you’re malnourished, and you’ve probably caught some kind of jungle virus that’s making you hallucinate giant spiders. And you’re still just going, “GIVE ME A STICK. I’M NOT DYING OUT HERE.”
“A cry for help” makes it sound like I’m supposed to take pity on you, but you don’t need my pity. This isn’t pathetic. This is the will to survive. This is how humans lived long enough to become the dominant species.
With NO hope, running on NOTHING, you’re ready to cut through a hundred miles of hostile jungle with nothing but a stick, if that’s what it takes to get to safety.
All I’m doing is handing out sticks.
You’re the one staying alive.
I think this describes the instinct to survive so well. Battling anxiety and depression is heroic at times, and just getting through the day can be exactly like fighting a battle.
In reflecting on this, I thought back to one of my first patients from when I was just starting out, who had come to live in the US from another country. His first challenge was one that many of us struggle with, navigating American High School life. As someone who didn’t speak the language very well, he was mocked and ridiculed. Every day he wanted to give up. He was small, underdeveloped, had bad skin, and a massive language barrier to overcome.
Let’s just say the odds were not in his favor.
But that guy started going to the gym and lifting weights. Tiny dumbbells at first, and then the bench press and the squat rack. He got bigger and bigger. I asked him why he was working so hard and he said something I’ll never forget.
“I’ll make it to the moon if I have to crawl.”
I knew the reference. It was from the Red Hot Chili Peppers (also one of my favorites), and it was something he had locked on to as a source of determination and resilience.
And I had never seen anyone work harder in my life. He could have given up. Gone back to his home country. Succumbed to the bullying and packed it in.
But he kept going
Years later he realized a lifelong dream and became a marine. He sent me a picture of his family. He looked like a brick house and his wife and kids were gorgeous.
And sometimes when I’m whining about my life I think about him, and people in much more difficult circumstances than me who somehow have the courage to keep going. It makes a lot of my first world problems seems pretty small in comparison. And when I’m feeling sorry for myself I turn on the Red Hot Chili Peppers and think of all the people who I’ve seen fight and win some great battles in therapy. And then I think about my own battles and brush myself off and get back in the ring again.
I’ll make it to the moon if I have to crawl.
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