I’ve been called ‘strong’ and/or ‘brave’, more times than I can remember. To what extent this is true, I’m really not sure, because I know there are people out there that have faced bigger challenges and climbed way tougher mountains than I’ve had to climb and they’ve come forth like valiant soldiers with scars, badges and medals attesting to their triumphant escape from what (in the moment of their despair) appeared to be the jaws of a hideous monster called ‘I’m-here-to-wipe-you-out’.
The planet has been graced with people of whom, I would choose to borrow John the Baptist’s words and say ‘…the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie’. These people have wrestled with menacing tribulation, have walked through life-altering situations (no, not the kind of life altering that happened when the Office-orderly botched your lunch order and brought you Rice instead of Fries…) I mean, staring-death-in-the-face-and-live-to-tell-the-tale kind of stuff and they’ve had to keep going because the funny thing about life is that when it’s not your time to go, it just isn’t and as the pain and confusion gnaw at your very core, the only options you have available to you are sink or swim…and so you pull a Dory and Just keep swimming.
A person that immediately comes to mind is the recently passed, world renowned Physicist Stephen Hawking – he was born a well able bodied individual, but midway through his journey as a young man, was hit by a debilitating motor neuron disease – Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis – that threatened everything he knew to be normal. ALS is a condition which causes the nerves that control the muscles, to shut down and results in a patient losing the use of most parts of their body except for the involuntary functioning of one’s internal organs…among other areas (ahem) The latter is what explains why Stephen went on to have three children in spite of his condition (I needed to throw that in for my overactive minded friends out there)
At the time of his diagnosis, however, all that medical science could offer was a very grim two and a half years to live, with the guarantee of ever decreasing use of his limbs and body. Stephen was only 21 at the time, yet he got to live to the ripe old age of 76. His diagnosis was most definitely life altering, but it didn’t stop him from going on to be one of the most lauded scientists of our time and being spoken of alongside great minds like Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Sir Isaac Newton.
Ursula Burns is another present-day heroin we can glean inspiration from: she grew up in the US against the backdrop of racial prejudice in the 1960’s – raised by a single parent, impoverished and with minimal career options available to her. With so many odds stacked up against her, Burns however, went on to be at the helm of Xerox – a multibillion dollar conglomerate – making her the first black woman to head up a Fortune 500 company and in 2014 she was rated by Forbes as the 22nd most powerful woman in the world. She is currently Chairwoman of VEON, a multinational telecommunications services company.
The list goes on: Chris Gardner, Condoleezza Rice, Nelson Mandela, Levy Mwanawasa, Oprah Winfrey…You… (*wink wink*) These real life examples are essential because they help us gain perspective; it’s not easy to see how good you’ve got it until you view your life through the lenses of someone who’s had it much worse. I’ve deliberately included in my examples only those who were born with no physical conditions per se, even though there are more sobering accounts of people born with debilitating conditions, and yet they too have chosen to triumph – yes, chosen, because it’s a mind thing.I can almost hear the cynic muttering to herself, ever so silently: “but those people were born into disability, they didn’t know any other way and therefore haven’t had to adapt to a new normal like I have…!” and even though, I consider such a statement to be a cop-out, I have deliberately left out those born with physical anomalies so that no one has an excuse to drive to Victimsville, park their car on Depression Boulevard in order to make an appearance at Pity’s party, before checking in to Hotel Sorrowful for an Indefinite stay…yes, I see you, DON’T DO IT!
So, what is this thing called ‘strength’? Is it something one can develop or is it inherent only in certain (un/fortunate) individuals? These and so many other related questions had plagued me for a while and as I took my morning jog several months ago, I found myself mulling over the word, ‘Strength’ and my mind went on a solo journey (as it often does) and I believe I may have had a Eureka moment folks! Do join me as I elaborate.
My exercise route at the time was not just a flat plane, it consisted of stretches of level ground alternating with a bit of uneven terrain – undulation if you will. So, picture this: a stretch of flat ground, followed by a short downhill stretch, then a bit of uphill and then completely level ground again punctuated by humps or dips and all things uneven and then a combination of the pattern would repeat itself. There was this one stretch however, which was a steady incline of about 45 degrees (if my memory of high school math serves me correctly) this was for a good part of my home run – and that’s where the panting and sputtering would go into overdrive. It was that stretch that got me thinking about strength and my perception of it.
So this was how my session would typically go: I’d jog with full gusto all along the way; tackling the undulation and uneven terrain like a pro…up until I got to what I dubbed ‘the evil incline’. There, my lungs would unequivocally scream ‘YOU BETTER STOP THIS NONSENSE OR ELSE…!’ It was at that point that I needed to tell my body to shut it and just keep going…well, it was either that or build a shelter – complete with phone charging port and WIFI and park there until the following morning, because, I’m ashamed to admit, I’m one of those people who cannot for the life of me recall what life was like before smart phones and unlimited internet (hides in utter shame).
So anyway, I digress…when I first started run/walking that route, I would just quit the jogging thing and simply walk through the evil stretch, trying to catch my breath and giving my muscles a much needed opportunity to recover. Then I’d have a go at the jogging thing again before eventually just giving up and walking the rest of the way. An interesting thing happened though; I found myself tackling longer stretches of the incline as each week progressed. As a matter of fact, by the time I was moving from that particular neighborhood, the evil incline and I had bonded so well that my mantra had changed to ‘Is that all you’ve got?!’ I was able to jog all the way to the top without needing to stop to catch my breath – imagine that!
Life is pretty much like that incline (a little simplistic, I know but it’s a lesson well worth grasping) we are all running the course of life and each of us faces our own unique share of the plain and level with a side serving of undulations; when life is a little bumpy, but for the most part its good. You know, those seasons when the bills are paid, kids are doing great in school, the mother in law actually remembers your name…those times when that co-worker’s cheap cologne has either run out or you’ve simply grown accustomed to its annoying fragrance cause you don’t smell it anymore…you know what I mean – when life’s a breeze, it can even be equated to jogging downhill.
With the passing of time, we face a little bit of turbulence for brief spells; when the car acts up or co-worker dearest replenishes his annoying stash of putrid-scented cologne…Those can be equated to the bumpy parts of my running track – a little taxing, but brief and you get over them quickly. Pretty much the way a spell of hiccups hits and then ceases? Those are the moments when we need to slow down and quickly catch our breath, but soon, life gets back to normal – our ‘muscles’ are able to recover quickly and bounce back.
Then there almost always seems to come a time when the ‘incline’ stretches out for a lot longer than your ordinary drive-by uphill battles; when your emotional, physical and mental muscles scream until they can scream no further and you feel like simply yielding to their demands. I think everyone experiences this at some time or other; tough times that know where you live and insist on moving into your guest quarters. Hardships that threaten to sap the very life out of you…pain so intense you find yourself wishing it could just hurry up and swallow you whole because there really is nothing of you left to savor.
However, through unswerving determination we find ways to tackle the stubborn inclines in our lives and we eventually mount them with less gasping and with more energy. We learn to adapt to our new normal and devise ways of walking on one leg, surviving on a single income or suddenly becoming the pillar that everyone runs to for solutions. Those moments when you can’t look outward for sustenance, because the kind of strength one needs for this kind of ascent is that which can only be found buried in the deep recesses of your being.
The sad thing about the evil incline scenario though, is that the season can last anything from one week to several years on end, so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, yes, sadly, there is no panacea. So my conclusion? I guess strength doesn’t just happen; it’s not just a random act of machismo (or girlismo) It’s through persistent endurance that people learn not to give in to the circumstances that dictate to them to throw in the towel; in those moments you tell yourself to just keep it pushing towards the finish line – whatever the finish line may be for you – because the human spirit is resilient beyond comprehension. It can survive the direst of conditions and not only survive, but will even emerge triumphant; it all starts however, with what you choose to feed your mind. If you tell yourself you can’t do it, you won’t do it; but if you keep a positive outlook and be your biggest cheer leader, you’ll be amazed at just how much strength you’re capable of exhibiting.
Yes, we sometimes stop or even fall down, but that’s all part of the strengthening process. So I think it’s unfair to say ‘strong’ people can take on anything, because so called ‘strong’ people feel pain too, they also feel the same helplessness that any ‘not-so-strong’ individual experiences, the only difference is that they have, against all odds chosen not to allow the setback to incapacitate them to the point of quitting. So I don’t think anyone should beat themselves up for flirting with the idea of giving up. What you need to do though, is wake up the following morning, determined to face that incline once again and with time you’ll find that your muscles are much stronger than when you first began, because strength doesn’t just happen, it grows…
Written by Tebby Silavwe
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