About Being Tough

Toughness is defined as “capable of enduring strain, hardship, or severe labor; characterized by uncompromising determination; strong or firm in texture but flexible and not brittle.” — Merriam-Webster.

What makes someone or something tough? Is it an innate quality, or it something that is developed with time and experience? It’s the common nature vs nurture argument, only slightly more complicated. On the nurture side of the argument, the same boiling water that toughens an egg will soften a carrot, just as circumstances can also make or break a person’s spirit. On the nature side, some people just seem to have a greater or lesser ability to withstand challenges regardless of their personal experience. Why is that? What are we to do if we want to become tougher? Is it a futile pursuit if we are not born with it, or is a skill that must be practiced? So we return to the question, what makes people tough? 

I believe that toughness is best developed by withstanding challenges, which requires a bit of innate resiliency and awareness of the hidden value in the process. 

Toughness may look different from one person to another. For some, toughness will be exhibited by running a marathon, overcoming a grim diagnosis, moving across the world, or caring for a sick loved one. For others, toughness may look like trying to make ends meet on a tiny budget, taking care of multiple children, being a single parent, or remaining faithful to the daily grind at work. Toughness can be highly visible, or it can be extremely private.

To me, toughness looks like showing up, day in and day out, regardless of how you actually feel. It is grown by withstanding the wind and the rain in the present time, because it will allow you to reach the destination on the other side, whatever it may be. Sometimes that destination is a personal goal, like an athletic achievement, or an advanced degree. Other times, it is simply to return to health, financial freedom, or peace in a relationship.

Toughness requires a frequent re-orientation to your goals. Some goals take months, years, or decades to achieve. Do we have that grit and determination to keep looking ahead at our goals, or do we allow ourselves to be swallowed up by the present challenges and trials? If we have the tenacity to hold strong to these dreams and aspirations, even when it’s not easy, then we will develop toughness. 

It’s worth noting that these goals may or may not be grand things. Oftentimes, these goals are to simply conquer daily challenges or to live your life in a certain way. You could call this a purpose driven toughness, rather than a goal oriented toughness. 

Getting out of bed to exercise early in the morning requires toughness. Considering other’s needs before your own requires toughness. Traveling far distances with young children to see friends and family requires toughness. Eating a healthy diet requires toughness. Getting up and going to work when you are tired requires toughness. Fighting doubt, worry, and discouragement on a daily basis requires toughness. Going out of your way to show people you care can require toughness. 

Toughness is best shown when things don’t work out the way we thought they would. When this happens, do we give up easily, or do we dust ourselves off and prepare to go another round? When circumstances turn unfavorable, or the winds of fortune change, are we weak enough to be easily moved, or are we strong enough to be able to withstand the shift?

 Another way to define toughness is to think of it as the byproduct of enduring repeated tests, trials, and stressors. How does a body gain strength? The individual muscles have to undergo repeated stresses that lead to breakdown of skeletal muscle. When this muscle builds back up, it will be stronger than before. So it is true of us. When we are broken down, we are given the opportunity to return stronger than before. 

Challenges need not be seen as a stop sign or a roadblock. They are a means to an end. They are an opportunity to grow in wisdom, patience, grace, and toughness. 

Now, this does not always means that we will get what we want, just as long as we hang on tenaciously. Sometimes, God’s plans for our lives are not what we had originally thought, and that’s ok. It’s foolish to not follow God’s leading when it obviously involves going down a different path than the one you are currently on. 

What I am talking about here is the ability to not be easily deterred. When circumstances change unfavorably,  when something requires more effort than originally thought, or when a seemingly insurmountable challenge is dropped in your lap, what is the response? Is it “I can do this” or, “I can try harder” or, “I can stick this out a little longer”? Hopefully it is. 

Giving up is no good. It buys into the lie that life is supposed to be easy, or if it’s tough it’s wrong. Things worth having come at a cost. Are we willing to do whatever it takes, or are we going to sub ourselves out because we don’t want to get our hands too dirty? After all, as the old adage goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

When I think of examples of tough people, there are two groups of people that stick out to me. Older people are tough. I know this because I am fortunate enough to have talked to many older people throughout my career. A quick look at the orthopedic state of older people tells us how tough they are. For the people that are still ambulatory, it’s undoubtedly painful. Degenerating spines, knees, hands, feet, ankles, shoulders, and hips make it hard to move easily, and yet, they still get around and do what they need to do. 

For the people that are no longer ambulatory, think of how difficult it is to 1) rely on other people for a lot of help, and 2) how much effort the simplest things require. This is also not even factoring in the lifetime worth of emotional, psychological, vocational, and social challenges that these people have faced and learned from. There is a lot to be gleaned from their experience. 

The second example of tough people is single parents. The rigors and challenges of parenting are enough to break anyone down into a puddle of frustration and doubt. It is so important to have two parents to balance out these emotional highs and lows and share in the responsibility, but not everyone has that luxury. A single parent is left to deal with the full responsibility of putting food on the table, maintaining a house, and raising children and giving them what they need, all the while having their own concerns, dreams, and desires. I know how much I rely on my husband for everyday things, and a big part of that is for wisdom, guidance, and encouragement with parenting. I can’t imagine how tough it is to parent without a supporting teammate, but people do it.

In summary, I am a firm believer that toughness is an acquired quality. We have to decide that we will not be easily deterred when confronted with an obstacle on our way to a goal or a purpose. After all, if we are easily discouraged, was it ever really that important to us? Toughness and commitment go hand in hand. If we fully commit, we will do, regardless of what comes our way. Saying the words sounds nice, but we all know that actions speak louder than words. 

Toughness requires frequent reorientation to your goal or purpose. Why are we fighting this particular battle? Is it worth the cost? In most cases, I believe it is. While we are allowed to change our minds and decide we want something different, it shouldn’t be for the sole reason that it is too difficult. Don’t be easily deterred. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s wrong. 

When we choose to embrace the challenges of life, we gain more than just an achievement or a sense of pride. We learn the inherent value of withstanding unfavorable circumstances. We will all encounter these things in life, it’s a known fact. I want to be prepared to tackle them head on, instead of feeling as though I am being pushed past my limit. We have greater capacities for growth, struggle, and learning than we often realize. Embrace the challenges, and hang tough. You will gain more than you know 🙂

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