It was 110 degrees here last Saturday and I actually had the thought, “I can’t take this anymore.” Take what? Heat? No air conditioning? Having no options to escape? Feeling oppressed? Feeling constricted? I’m not sure. I know I added to the myriad of emotional upheavals I seem to experience periodically. I’m good for a day or even a week, then the smallest thing happens and I seem to plummet into a feeling of total frustration. It’s a little crazy-making, but by practicing mindfulness, I’m aware of my crazy thoughts when they occur and can work on reframing them or at least observing them with a little space between myself and my thoughts, which helps.
It also made me think of what I touched on last week, which is grit. What happened to my grit? I used to have a lot of it, which I attributed to my ancestors who were literally pioneers, arriving here in the 1880s and making their way from New York to Kansas. Once they arrived, they had to build their own houses, build a church since they were devout Lutherans, and then they had to figure out how to farm the land. And I’m whining about it being hot. Of course, I realize my frame of mind is not just about the heat. It’s about months of feeling confined, the monotony of pretty much having nothing to do but work, of missing family and friends, of the disconcerting unpredictability of being able to purchase what I want or need, of feeling out of control, and the low level anxiety of catching a virus that could result in misery or even death. Adding even one more discomfort, like extreme heat, feels like it’s too much to bear. It’s not even the daytime heat that’s the worst, it’s nighttime. When it gets this hot here, it doesn’t cool down at night and without air conditioning, sleeping becomes miserable. So add only getting 4 hours of sleep a night for a few nights in a row now, and if I had any grit left, it feels gone now. I suspect many of you are experiencing something familiar.
Grit isn’t a word you hear very often these days, but it’s a psychological term that relates to perseverance and passion. It’s a non-cognitive trait based on an individual's perseverance of effort combined with the passion for a particular long-term goal or end state. In other words, a powerful motivation to achieve an objective. Margaret M. Perlis, author of the article, “5 Characteristics of Grit—How Many Do You Have?” explains that grit is a combination of courage, conscientiousness in the form of achievement-orientation versus dependability, follow-through on long-term goals and endurance, resilience which includes optimism, confidence and creativity, and a focus on excellence versus perfection.
I’m very aware that my questioning my own grit, or others, could become a judgment. But I really tried to step back this week and observe my own thoughts and behaviors, as well as the behavior of others, to see if there really is a grit problem these days. Here’s what I discovered.
The protestors have grit. They are still out their calling for social justice in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of grueling heat, in the midst of police brutality and secret police hauling them away in vans, in the midst of being tear-gassed, tasered and shot with rubber bullets. That’s determination, perseverance, and sticking with a long-term goal.
The folks in Montana and Oregon who started a rallying cry last week to stop the destruction of the U.S. postal service have grit. They risked their jobs and political backlash to step up and be whistle-blowers on the quiet shenanigans of the US government to slow down the mail service to make mail-in voting as difficult as possible, according to the President, including quietly removing physical mailboxes around the country, trashing million-dollar sorting machines, and reducing the number of hours mail-carriers can deliver the mail. While this has already had immediate negative implications for the millions of people who receive everything from checks to medication via the postal service, the even bigger issue is the impact this will have on the upcoming presidential race in November and the doubts it will raise regarding the results of that election. The vast majority of Americans would have never realized what was happening if not for those gritty people who began reporting it and through their determination to get the word out, many of these unethical actions have at least been temporarily halted as investigations begin.
I realized that in both of those cases, they have a long-term goal and that may be part of what’s throwing grit for the rest of us out of whack. Likewise, with the historical events I brought up last week. During both World Wars, we were unified on the long-term goal - win the wars. We not only had a reason to make substantial sacrifices, but we were encouraged and motivated by a national theme of patriotism and hope. News reels were played before movies aired in theaters showing how our sacrifices were helping. Billboards announced how our efforts were supporting the troops. Rosie the Riveter appeared on magazine covers, in newspapers and on billboards, further motivating citizens to keep it up, keep on going, the end was in sight. I’m not naïve enough to fail to recognize the propaganda inserted into all of that, but the point is, we had a common goal, a national theme of motivation and gratitude for our efforts, and most importantly, a consistent message of hope. We also still largely had faith in our government, so while stressful and difficult, there was an assumption that as a nation, we would of course pull through.
My great, great grandparents had grit because they had a clearly defined long-term goal. Move to a place where they were free to practice their religion, which was severely restricted in Prussia at the time, and where they could farm the land unimpeded, which was also a problem of the times back home. They had optimism that their faith combined with the promises made by the “land of the free” would get them to their goal. Did they endure terrible hardships for many years? Yes they did, starting with losing a child on the ocean voyage to get here, but they persevered because they knew they could achieve their ultimate aim with effort and determination.
I think that’s what’s missing now. Two of the key factors involved with grit, resilience which includes optimism and motivation, and follow-through on long-term goals, are missing from our equation. How can we follow through on long-term goals if we don’t have any? There is no unifying message of what our goal could even be. Survive the pandemic? Surviving isn’t a very motivating aim, although we all certainly want to do it, and if that’s our goal, how do we “follow-through” and stick with it? We have such mixed messages of advice and information, it’s impossible to be certain of what actions to take to stick with anything.
And optimism? We’re so divided as a nation in the U.S., it feels impossible to feel optimistic that we’ll all pull together and reach any kind of a common goal. After contemplating all of this over the past week, I have changed my mind. We may have become spoiled over the past couple of decades, and isn’t that some kind of progress, to not have to work ourselves to a nub just to survive? But we do have grit, all of us. What we’re lacking in is a clearly defined goal, which results in no motivation to take action because we don’t know what action to take. During the tragic events a century ago, people weren’t sitting around thinking about how burdened their lives felt because they were too busy working on meeting their goals. It’s very hard for us to figure out what action we can take on any given day, so we spend more time thinking about what we’re not doing or what we’re not able to do or how messed up this whole thing really is.
I thought a lot about what I asked last week, which was in comparison to someone living through the events of 100 years ago, are we really suffering? While I would still say that we have more to be grateful for than to be upset about, I gained some clarity over the past week about our suffering in general. We are suffering, mentally, and that’s perhaps more serious than physical sacrifices. Approximately one in 12 American adults reported symptoms of anxiety disorders at this time last year. That number has skyrocketed to more than one in three today, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, for the first time reported that the majority of American adults believe that the pandemic is taking a toll on their mental health. And shockingly, a report just released by the CDC indicates that 11% of Americans seriously considered suicide in June, double the percentage in 2018.
This seems to be another reason our grit isn’t rising to the occasion. We’re struggling just to hang on to our sanity. It’s challenging to focus on and stay motivated about a long-term goal if we’re depressed, anxious or suicidal. If nothing else, I hope these numbers move anyone who’s suffering mentally to reach out for help. You’re definitely not alone and there’s definite cause for serious concern. Please talk to someone, call your doctor, see a therapist, call a mental health hotline or contact a telehealth service. Please don’t ignore it. Depression and anxiety are treatable so don’t suffer in isolation.
While we pay close attention to our mental health and take action as needed, studies indicate there are several ways to strengthen our grit which further supports our well-being. One is to pursue our interests. We need to find something that fascinates us or that we feel passionately about. It could be anything from beautifying the neighborhood to fighting for civil justice and equality. The key is passion and we can feel passion even if we’re stuck at home.
Whatever you choose to pursue, practice it every day. From learning more about it to participating in an action that propels it, keep doing it. Connecting to a higher purpose is important as well. Ask yourself how you’re helping other people through this pursuit.
Cultivating hope further strengthens grit, so work on eliminating any inaccurate or limiting beliefs you may have. We can all do anything we truly set our minds on, but we might need to clear some internal clutter to see it. And the final step to strengthening our grit is to surround ourselves with gritty people. Protesters motivate other protesters. Volunteers motivate other volunteers. Great leaders motivate other leaders. Create that positive peer pressure by putting yourself out there with other like-minded, determined people, to greatly boost your own grit, whether in person or virtually.
I’m looking to the protesters and the defenders of the post office, who are ultimately defending the very democracy of the United States, to motivate me to find my goal. We’ve already talked about how to set goals and why they’re so important in previous podcasts, but I think now, more than ever, we need to make goal-setting a priority for our mental health. Not only do we need to decide who we want to be as individuals by the time this crisis passes, but what do we want our communities to be? What do we want our governments to be? What kind of a world do we want to leave to our grandchildren and beyond? Big goals? Yes they are. But that’s what we need to activate and maximize our grit. And as we strengthen our grit, we begin achieving whatever goals we’re aiming for through that perseverance and passion, creating an upward spiral to our condition as well as those around us.
We know we will get through this pandemic, just not when. But we can do more than just get through it. The big issues facing all of us, not just in the U.S. but around the globe, seem daunting and overwhelming, but if each of us begins to identify goals of what we can do as individuals as well as groups, we can start making real change for the greater good for all.
So, it's time to get gritty!