Monday, July 27, 2015

Are You Tough Enough?

We buried my uncle a couple of weeks ago. He was 94. The last time I'd seen him, he told me the story of how he'd gone in for surgery and his lungs were so deteriorated, they packed them with talcum powder and closed him up. That was four years ago. As a child I loved family get-togethers; sitting at my uncles' feet and listening to their outrageous tales. They were a wild bunch. And tough, every last one of them.

As a kid, I was a brainy little butterball with Coke bottle glasses and bad hygiene. When it comes to being bullied, I was asking for it. What I didn't ask for, was to be betrayed by an adult; to have my childhood ripped from me and to experience the most heinous feeling of helplessness -- for years. I don't think my high school diploma had grown warm in my hands before I decided no one was ever going to tell me what to do again. And I would never, ever, ever be anyone's victim. I smoked, I partied, I fought, I drove like the devil, I lifted weights, I engaged in reckless behavior (the more reckless, the better) and I cussed like a sailor's potty-mouthed parrot. Smile was something I did when I cut someone down or pissed someone off. Laughter was always at the other guy's expense. Crying was out of the question. And sincerity was -- well, sincerity was a myth. I never told people I loved them, or I told everyone I loved them. It really didn't matter, because I wasn't going to love anyone anyway. To love, you had to be stupid enough to trust someone. To love, you had to be weak enough to need someone. To love, you had to be willing to do what you were sometimes asked to do. None of that was going to happen. 

As a more than middle-aged adult, I have begun to realize something (and it might just be making a few people uncomfortable) but being tough is the last thing I want to be. Being tough doesn't do anybody any favors. Tough doesn't keep you from losing people that you really love. Tough doesn't keep you from cancer, or divorce, or problems with your children. Tough doesn't keep you from going through the same things others go through; it just keeps you going through them alone. Tough is like a callous, or a piece of shoe leather. Sure it keeps stuff out or protects you from wear and tear but is that really what you want? To indiscriminately keep everything out, or to arrive at the end of life with absolutely no signs of having lived it? I'm learning how much better it is to be strong. Strong takes the hit, but having taken it, emerges victorious; Tough sort of avoids the hit altogether. Tough says,"This doesn't hurt;" Strong says, "Sure it hurts, but I'm gonna make it." Tough says,"I'm not scared;" Strong says, "I am terrified, but I'm going through it anyway." Tough is more like denial; Strong is more like actually living courageously. 

A few years ago, I apologized to a roomful of people -- about a hundred -- many of whom I'd known all my life -- for the way I'd behaved when I was tough. I don't think I've ever felt stronger. 

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