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A tough lady I admire said recently "You only learn through difficulty." In the recent past I not only would have admired the words themselves, I would have bowed down in worship of them. Today this wisdom about facing adversity, and most other wisdom besides, sounds a bit hollow. The words might be true. It might only be the difficult situation that teaches, but we also discover that difficulty, even if it is a necessary factor, is not sufficient for learning. And even if difficulty were sufficient for learning, there's nothing in that truth that would necessarily make the tuition of toughness worth paying, or possible to pay. I've begun to wonder about toughness itself.
The attitude of toughness is to face the chaos of situations and to enter them. As an attitude and as an action, toughness tries to create meaning in all situations, even those that are not survivable. The situation is challenging. The best is done. All other details are subordinate to those facts, and the lessons learned lie in the details. And yet the tough often seek something in reward for their action beyond meaning; they seek skill from education through adversity. Besides skill, there is always the prestige of toughness itself, its ego, armor and image of something that cannot fall in defeat. For some this prestige is more valuable than either existential meaning or skill.
Another bit of popular wisdom, that a crisis will "make or break you", points to the limits of education in adversity. Presumably that which "breaks you" provides no education; in fact it sounds like the bad result that lurks in the mortal shadows of Nietzche's useless chestnut "That which doesn't kill me, makes me stronger".1 Broken or dead, stronger or made, sets of polar opposites and forced outcomes appear in these wisdoms that refer to no objective reality. We all know people who have come through the very worst adversity and have only foolishness to show for it. I personally greeted serious illness in part with anticipation that I would finally learn something from the experience. Having been through it I can say I have learned absolutely nothing. I claimed in the past that illness had educated me. I was posturing to assume the outsized prestige of toughness. Nothing more. But I have made a such a fetish of toughness, I adore it so much even today, that I suspect my lack of wisdom is a result of a lack in myself, that I was not tough enough after all and that the experience of adversity lacked nothing.
There's a missing element, though. As soon as I blame myself I have the sense that I have blinked and missed something, an agent or factor at work behind the scenes. What's missing may be the discrepancy between the image of toughness and toughness itself, between who I am and who I want to be. The pursuit of toughness has led me to various activities from the study of martial arts to poetry to (much more sanely) Zen. In all of these pursuits there can be the question of measuring up. In all of this also a sense of jealousy of those I perceived to be tougher, a jealousy that comes with a suspicion that toughness itself is a hateful sham that feeds off the the misfortune of others in order to convince itself of its superiority.
A haunting example of a tough person has come in the person and writing of Lucy Grealy. A survivor of disfiguring childhood cancer, its grueling treatment and her subsequent efforts at facial reconstruction, Lucy often wore the prestige of toughness in both its hard and soft forms. She could smile talking about painful memories. She could bristle at signs someone was about to intrude on her emotional life. No doubt she masked a lot of insecurity that way, but who could say the image of toughness wasn't something she earned after years of pain?
There is a passage from Lucy's memoir2 that has stuck with me from the moment I read it. I've inverted the order of paragraphs to emphasize the meaning. She describes herself when she was quite young and in the midst of cancer treatment.
Once, during a week of intensive chemotherapy toward the end of the two and a half years, I was sent to another ward.... My roommate was a girl who'd been run over by an iceboat; the blades had cut her intestines in two, and she'd have to have them sewn back together. She got a lot of attention, lots of calls from concerned relatives and school friends, and I was both a little jealous of her and a little contemptuous because she was taking her accident a bit too seriously for m taste. After all, she'd lived, hadn't she? She'd had one operation and they might do another one the next week, but after that it would be all over, so what was the big fuss about?
Everybody, from my mother to the characters I read about in books (who were as actual and important as real people to me) was always looking at someone else's life and envying it, wishing to occupy it. I wanted them to stop, to see how much they had already, how they had their health and their strength. I imagined how my life would be if I had half their fortune. Then I would catch myself, guilty of exactly the thing I was accusing others of.... [S]ometimes I felt that the only reason for this clarity was to see how hypocritically I lived my own life.
The insight here floored me when I first read the passage. Here was one of the toughest people I knew admitting to something predatory in the nature of toughness: the need it can develop to see others as whiny and weak in order to boost itself by comparison. In the passage's candor I saw Lucy then recovering toughness as something with great value after all, a greater toughness she could use to look at herself and find the possibility of even greater strength and compassion. She certainly had learned from a very difficult situation.
Today, however, I come to the words "how hypocritically I lived my own life" and another process becomes apparent besides the one that promotes insight and courage. There is that judgment again, the lack of compassion for others turned into a lack of compassion for self, and it looks no different from the cruel evaluation of Lucy's roommate that was so horrifying in the first place. What had been an exit from one hell was a portal to another.3
Today what seems clear is that toughness is composed of a dynamic between pride in attaining the image and shame in failure to meet the ideals of the image of toughness. Neither the yang of pride nor the yin of shame look very pleasing as individual objects of contemplation. Even the whole they create looks shabby.
So, do we meet the difficult situation, the situation that teaches, with our toughness that is itself a dynamic of shame and pride? I have to admit that I've created categories that sound reified and medieval, completely untrustworthy. But this is a lack of trust I've developed in looking at the entire shell game of wisdom received through words. The shells of words seem to be everywhere. That pea of wisdom nowhere. Toughness itself sounds conjured and irrelevant.
In the meantime, as this turning over of meaning goes on, situations keep happening. Once we get past pride, admiration and shame, toughness becomes a series of sounds or letters on a page. If we have left an unpleasant task undone or if we live in the midst of an unpleasant task that we do anyway, toughness offers no help whatsoever. We go forward. We don't. We learn. We don't. We endure.
1I realize and dearly hope I'm confusing pat slogans for truer expressions of wisdom.
2Autobiography of a Face, Harper Perennial, New York, 1994, p. 131.
3I find reading reviews of Lucy's book fascinating precisely because so many readers become caught up in questions of toughness, self-pity and self-absorbtion when they encounter this memoir. It is even more fascinating because nearly half the book concerns the experiences of a girl who hasn't entered sixth grade, and yet we are so caught up in the pride and shame of toughness that we have to subject our evaluations of them upon a child who is going through more pain than many people endure in their entire lives. This is not to say that Lucy Grealy was not a very precocious and complex figure.