"...suffering is one of the universal conditions of being alive. We all suffer. We have become terribly vulnerable, not because we suffer, but because we have separated ourselves from each other." -- Rachel Naoimi Remen

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Gritty Grit

Pop on far right, cousins & uncles harvesting tobacco, 1987.
Recently, I drove past a tobacco field. I recall, August is the time for tobacco harvest.  I'm overcome by a peaceful smile and memories flood back quickly.  They're altogether pleasant.  First, I thought of Pop.  Then, I thought of tobacco worms and that smell of tobacco leaves.  My uncles in the top of the barn calling down, jumping around.  Bravely.  Fun.  Hot and sweaty.  I'm reminded of one of my uncles in the stripping shed in the dead of winter; I call him the Philosopher. 

In this moment, I remember those days so fondly.  It feels like a runners-high washes over me. 

And yet "fondness" and "peaceful" aren't at all the vocabulary I would have used to describe those times during those times, some twenty years ago. 

Why is it that my reaction to the sight of a working tobacco farm is so profound? 

Memories from our adolescence are fascinating like that.  

Today, when I see a working tobacco farm, I'm reminded of one of the great things that I know in my core is a fundamental part of what makes me who I am. 

As a child and teenager growing up on a tobacco farm, I was far from proud.  My dad and his brothers farmed tobacco throughout their childhood and early adulthood.  My dad continued farming until I was 16, hanging onto the extra cash the crop afforded my family - using those dollars to put my siblings and I through Catholic grade school.  

Tobacco, for those of you who haven't raised it, is an incredibly difficult crop.  Planted in May, harvested in August and hung through the fall, tobacco leaves are then stripped in the winter, bundled and sold.  

I remember hiding behind the plants one hot summer day, as a public school school bus drove by - hoping to not be spotted out there, actually doing work.  

I remember heading to the "stripping shed" after indoor track practice, homework and dinner were complete.  It was 10th grade and I was having a great track season back then, which is perhaps why those memories of the Philosopher are so well etched in my mind. 

The difficulty of the tobacco crop left us worn and gritty.  My mom bought special soap for us to clean our hands.  But, she never apologized that we had to work so hard.  Maybe she wished we hadn't needed to do it; but maybe she also knew it was good for us, in more ways than one. 

Grit is defined by dictionary.com as an abrasive granule.  The hard work from the tobacco fields and barns left us covered in grit. 

Grit is also defined by dictionary.com as an "indomitable spirit."  

Grit's become quite the buzzword lately. A hot topic with an excellent TED Talk by Angela Duckworth, where she explains how grit influences future success more than talent.  Duckworth describes this essential quality as "passion and perseverance toward long term goals."  There are countless other writings today, including the Forbes article which enumerates the 5 characteristics of grit: courage, conscientiousness, endurance, resilience and excellence. 

Duckworth concludes her TED talk with a call for more research and the conclusion that experts still don't know what exactly creates grit in our children. 

Well, I know that raising tobacco throughout my adolescence left me gritty.  

I recall a pre-race conversation from my teen years where my dad encouraged me that he knew I could win because I worked harder than the competition, just like I did on the farm with him.  Some twenty years later, I can still see the pride in his eyes when he told me this.  

I learned early on that hard work produced results, both on the track and in my studies.  But I never thanked God for the privilege of working on a tobacco farm.  There weren't explicit lessons on the fields or in the barns.  We didn't talk about science or math, we didn't talk much at all.  I simply observed what it took to get the job done and did my best to do the same.  I don't ever remember complaining.  We actually had fun, particularly hanging tobacco in the barns, covered in sweat and grit, working hard.  Throughout those winters, the Philosopher and I debated God and poetry, and he taught me to question everything. 

I can see how this grit has served me well throughout my life.  Not as smart, but harder working than my classmates, I excelled in college.  Grit may well be the only reason I made it through medical school; where I felt largely out-rivaled, but determined to persevere.  Today, I wouldn't change a thing, as I enjoy a successful career in medicine.    

These days, I'm proud to be a farmers daughter and thankful for my experiences in raising tobacco as a child and teen.  I see that time in my life as critically formative in who I am today.  

Now, I find myself wondering how, in the absence of a tobacco farm, to create in my sons this sort of grit.  I know they need it.  Not only will they grow up in the entitlement generation, but their parents are both physicians.  Their lives lack very little at all.  They have everything they need and most of what they want, almost all the time.  We're abundantly blessed from a financial standpoint.  I wonder, does that actually disadvantage my children when it comes to the development of grit?  I worry... but I won't let it.

My husband and I believe strongly that this is one of the greatest challenges we parents of today collectively face.  Even those without financial luxuries face the culture of immediate gratification that is prevalent in our society.  Immediate gratification stands in direct opposition to perseverance toward long term goals.   

Did the American dream of providing a better life for our children than we enjoyed somehow get warped into creating childhoods free from tears, sweat or challenges of any kind?  I contend, we have gone too far. 

When things come quickly for children, those characteristics of endurance and resilience are not built or tested.  Which is one thing when a child has a particular talent in one area but another thing entirely when everything comes quickly because their parents have protected them with an artificial insulation from reality.   When children don't have the chance fail, they never get to pull themselves back up again.  I believe the possibility of failure is an absolutely essential opportunity for today's youth. 

And so, my husband and I have been fretting ever since I drove past that tobacco farm a few weeks ago.  We know a tobacco farm isn't required make our boys gritty.  

What will be those things? 

My parents didn't seek out hard farm work to create in me a strong work ethic.  They raised tobacco to make a living, we worked hard to survive; it was essential.  Although my family today doesn't have the financial impetus for this kind of tireless motivation, we must still courageously pursue excellence.  

We must know that sometimes our kids won't like us for it.  They may be embarrased, frustrated, and they may not understand.  They certainly won't be thanking us in the moment.  They may whine, mope or complain that their parents are the only ones this "mean."  But, we must continue to unapologetically seek out challenges for our children.  We must watch them fall and not immediately rush to help them back up again.  It'll be good for them, in more ways than one. 

This will be counter-cultural.   But, we know their grit depends on it.  And if their success depends on their grit, then we're going to stand back and let them get gritty.  

When reflecting on your own childhood, what experiences do you think shaped you the most?  Which left you gritty?