At what point in this life do we first despair of finding relief from pain or struggle? It must surely happen well before we can remember, perhaps from the instant we are born. Each successive moment after birth brings on new, stunning experiences: the pain of oxygen debt, shocking cold as liquid evaporates off skin that knows only warm immersion, our first pangs of hunger, enervating fatigue from flailing our limbs and finding our voice.
Built into each new, distressing incident is both despair and the possibility of our deliverance from it, if only we can learn something new in mind, body, or both. From birth onward these repeated experiences of suffering and discovery rush at us incessantly, and, if we do not die, we subconsciously stumble upon a key to future survival: perseverance, a willful choice to keep trying until we get it right.
Like latent muscle memory, the instinct to persevere lies deep within us, ready to be engaged whenever life gets difficult. Etched into the very strands of our hair are cortisol residues recording the stresses we experience. Although we may quickly forget some of our trials, we retain their memory in our bodies, a unique and personal chronicle of survival.
Curiously, the average duration of our suffering seems to lengthen as we grow older. Unbearable pain that lasts only microseconds for an infant may persist seconds for toddlers, minutes for children, hours or days for adolescents, and months or years for adults. In every case, we repeatedly find ourselves confronting the need to look inside for that remedy that goes by myriad names: grit, mettle, nerve, resolve, resilience, pluck. Mustering it means power to change an attitude, gear up our resolve, or even shift from suffering fate’s slings and arrows in distracted misery to tolerating, or even ignoring, those outrageous fortunes while reorienting ourselves toward some original, or new, intention.
As we age, we experience the distress-
perseverance pattern over and over again. Sometimes we find ourselves invoking it in dire circumstances that threaten our lives, but most often, especially as adolescents, its call comes to us in small, seemingly inconsequential moments when the stakes are mostly about degrees of comfort or the challenge of inertia. Very often, although not necessarily always, we learn how to get up off that particular couch through sports activities. In my case, it involved signing up for the cross-country team as a freshman in high school.
Being a fast sprinter, and possessing no skills or interest in football or tennis, I decided to try distance running because, well, how bad could it be? The first day of practice, our coach had us run five miles around a reservoir. I’d never run farther than a mile, but resolved not to stop for anything. In doing so, somewhere along the way I discovered, in addition to a new kind of suffering, a second wind that kept me going just a bit more. As I finished the run I was exhausted as never before but delighted, both because I was not last and because I went the distance without stopping. (The next morning, when I stood up out of bed and collapsed in spasms of leg muscle agony, I was less exultant.)
Years later, I came across William James’s famous quote that seemed to encapsulate that moment: “The human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use.”1 Although I think most people do have dramatic experiences in life that teach them about their own resilience, James emphasizes that learning some lessons requires us to push beyond our limits. We can all remember instances of grit during short sprints of difficulty, but its manifestation in life’s marathons is less obvious.
For example, looking back on our university days, we may see our personal growth stemming from a series of discretely difficult events or people: that test, that class, that roommate. But there is something about four years of constant exposure to intellectual fatigue and training that gives us self-awareness of our potential, builds up our power to analyze, reason, synthesize, carry a hypothesis through to discovery. We learn to read long and difficult books, endure and understand erudite lectures, sustain complex conversations, and evaluate convoluted arguments. The sum total of this low-grade perseverance is something once called character, and it is certainly more valuable in life, and eternity, than our diploma.
Like our time at the university, our spiritual journeys are often punctuated by warping distractions and repentant realignments, because perseverance can also involve recommitment to something that may have moved out of focus. Likewise, although dramatic conversions and spiritual development are frequently narrated as a series of trials and divine interventions, life itself is a school, and it is equally, if not more so, in the day-to-day struggles to maintain a humble life of devotion and obedience that we slowly become aware of our divine potential. That longer run is where we truly develop spiritual strength and endurance.
Based upon this common fact of our shared humanity and mortality, no wonder we find that acts of faith and acts of perseverance so often overlap. Fundamental to our shared experience of life is the need to go on despite pain, difficulty, obstacles, or even death. By mustering the mettle to take that next step, we may learn how to ignore our suffering or at least become so engrossed in the act of learning that we come to better disregard the bitterness of the exams.
This article appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Humanities alumni magazine.
1. William James. "The Energies of Man." The Philosophical Review 16, no. 1 (January 1907): 1–20.