Posted by: unlikelygrad | June 10, 2016

on being strong

“Oh, UnlikelyGrad, you are so amazing. I could never do what you do. I’m not strong enough.”

If I had a dollar for every time someone had said something of this nature to me, I could buy myself a vacation home in the Berkshires. I personally find it a ridiculous statement.

By “ridiculous” I don’t mean that the people in question are strong enough; I mean that strength is not a binary thing. I’ve had four babies and held dozens more newborns in my time–I love babies–and I can assure you that no newborn is particularly strong from a physical point of view. But some grow up to be strong people and some grow up to be weaklings (and everything in between).

Becoming physically strong is not a matter of genetics; it’s a matter of carrying on, pushing through pain and fatigue and lifting gradually more and more and more weight until you can carry a lot. Every time I get back to the weights after months away (which is, sadly, more frequent than I’d like) I start to burn out about 5 minutes in. I push on and make it through the whole routine, and at the end I am out of breath and sweaty. I usually end by panting something along the lines of “Holy…Cow… I…Need…To…Do…This…More…Often!” And then I am sore all over. The next session is better, and the one after that is better yet, and if I keep up my routine over the course of a few weeks I start being able to add new things (or heavier weights) to the ritual.

The same can be said about becoming mentally strong. You do not become good at math by picking up a calculator; you become good at math by doing simple arithmetic in your head, over and over and over, then doing algebra in your head over and over and over, then doing proofs over and over and over. You do not come out of the womb good at writing: if you are a good writer, it’s because you write a lot, revising and revising and revising.

Likewise, no one immediately has the emotional fortitude to go through a harrowing time. There will be times when you want to quit: when you are too sore to want to lift any more emotional weight. These are the times when you stop taking the long view. Thinking about the years ahead that you still need to endure is crushing. Well-meaning people tell you to take things one day at a time, but frequently even that is overwhelming. Sometimes I had to take things five minutes at a time, or even five seconds at a time.

Sometimes you have to force yourself to get through a workout one rep at a time. Sometimes you can only get through a homework set one problem at a time. And sometimes you get through a tough time by taking life two seconds at a time. The important thing is to keep moving, keep working your way through. Someday you will look back and see that you have walked a hundred or a thousand miles…and you realize that people look up to you for being able to walk a 5k without breaking a sweat.

Strength comes from endurance. From doing a little, one bit at a time, over and over and over. No, you may not be as strong as you need to be yet…but keep going, and I promise you that you will be.

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