Franklin Roosevelt, Maya Angelou, Albert Einstein, Walt Disney…history is full of stories of wildly successful people who have overcome incredible odds. This is not to say that FDR succeeded because he contracted polio at 39; FDR succeeded despite his disease. Surviving and thriving after a truly time-stopping, universe-questioning trauma often comes down to grit. We all have trauma and tragedy. Grit is what takes us from merely white-knuckling and surviving the pain to actually thriving.
What is grit? It’s endurance, it’s tenacity, it’s nerve…it’s the spirit and pluck we channel when we’re faced with existential and physical crises.
Traumatic events – they don’t have to be life threatening to be meaningful – have a way of quieting all the noise and creating space for you to see things with crystal clarity. In the face of terrible adversity, everything we mentally sort through on a normal day fades away, creating a space to figure out our “why.” The late Oliver Sacks ruminated on this clarity in a beautiful op-ed in the New York Times, upon learning he had terminal cancer.
“Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts.”
Grit is the nerve to connect those parts and the courage to listen to what happens when all the noise goes away.
Debilitating fear is one of the acute elements all people must confront when they have a trauma. Montana Chef Eduardo Garcia had to tackle his fair share of fear after an accident in 2011 brought him to the brink and back. He spent 48 days in burn trauma, undergoing 21 surgeries in two years. Add to this, the discovery that he had testicular cancer! Four years later, healthy and back in the kitchen, Garcia wrote about his experience with fear on The Great Discontent. Garcia says we must use our fear as fuel.
“Fear is necessary—it rattles your cage—but let it rattle your engine too, in the right way, towards something progressive. Let fear motivate you beyond all means.”
Tragedy can slap you right out of a sense of complacency. In the case of Space X, the June explosion of Dragon during liftoff was the last in a series of terrible blows to the company. But CEO Elon Musk says that they’ll be stronger for it. Horrible setbacks sometimes bring to light, just how amazingly difficult, and how unique, your work is. This sense of accomplishment and the appreciation of just how special your accomplishment is within the precarious nature of our existence…this is a gift.
Artist Marina Abramovic channels a childhood of abuse, neglect, and forced isolation as the creative spark for her art. In this interview with Abramovic on Brain Pickings, Maria Popova writes this really beautiful line about trauma-fueled creation… “great artists spend a lifetime making power from their wounds.”
Trauma and adversity can feed your creativity. Grit will propel you to learn from and use your experience, in order to become a more powerful force when you emerge.