Friday, October 19, 2012

A letter to all those who told me to "toughen up"

Dear Sirs and Madams,

I know you meant well. I recognize that many of you probably felt a moral obligation to prepare me for the harsh "real worlds" beyond your care: first grade, college, academia, interstate traffic. Moreover, I realize that my tenderness must have seemed tiresome to you. A kindergartener must stop crying under the table if she is to learn her alphabet, and trembling does make steering a car rather difficult.

From the vantage of adulthood, I understand why you made the refrain of my childhood, adolescence, and even grad school, "Bethany really needs to toughen up." However, I am writing to object, on record, to the terms of your admonitions.

When I cried over a B+ in 9th grade biology, hearing my teacher mutter, "Some people need to suck it up" really didn't help. My classmates showed much more compassion and wisdom in the notes they passed, reminding me that I had no reason to be ashamed of the grade, and that I could bring my average up with just a little extra work.

When anxiety followed me to every driving lesson, asking, "How many times do you have to make the same mistake before you learn from it?" was poor pedagogy on your part. I survived your bullying and gained my license, but not until my gentle college friends taught me to love mountain roads did I begin to drive without tears and terrors.

I could tell more tales, but I think you can see the theme.

I was so ashamed by your constant call to toughen up. I collected your comments as evidence that I was simply not meant to live in this world, and as early as first grade I began to daydream about a special box that would allow me to go to school without having to speak to anyone. (Anti-social tendencies aside, it was a pretty cool, almost TARDIS-like box. It had a periscope and a magic door that led to my own private garden world). As a teenager, these fantasies had evolved into visions of a hermitage I would build on the side of a remote mountain, far away from the world with its frightening roads and people.

Lacking the resources to build a magic box or a hermitage, my attempts at toughness involved shutting down. I would leave the room when a movie made my parents cry, I avoided praying aloud at meals, and I rarely spoke at school, knowing that whenever I did, it would be clear to all that I was "sheltered" and not capable of withstanding the world's rough winds.

However, I could not sustain such coldness for long, and by the time I graduated from high school, my resignation had grown into something like defiance. I began to ask myself, "What things in this world are 'tough'?" Stale bread. Overcooked meat. Callouses. Stones. Steel. I couldn't come up with a single thing known for "toughness" that I wanted to be anything like. This realization was important. It replaced shame with a kind of contentment. At the same time, I still believed that my meekness was vulnerability, and that while it might be superior in a spiritual sense, it was a disadvantage for living in the world. Withdrawal and seclusion still seemed like the best option.

Happily, other voices soon drowned out your misguided advice. Mark taught me to look people in the eye. Rachel convinced me to join her in a weight-training class. Keith gave calm advice about driving. Mary encouraged me to speak up in class. Perhaps the most precious words came from Lennon, who has known me since sixth grade, and who lived with my family for a season during high school. "You look so fragile, we all worry you might break," he said to me a few years ago, "but you're so much stronger than anybody--including you--realizes." He could say this because he knew something you never seemed to understand--that while thick skin gives the illusion of security, there is a far more lasting strength in faith, and faith often looks like a broken heart.

I confess that some days I agree more with you than with Lennon--especially on the nights when I am overcome by the sheer weight of so much feeling--so much joy, sorrow, confusion, possibility, anxiety, and hope in the lives of the people around me. But then I think of my brilliant, brave friends. Not a single one of them has ever said, "I love how inflexible you are," or "You're really being too compassionate," or "It's nerdy of you to care so much." I think of the words that guide my life. Nowhere does the good book say, "They shall know you by your toughness," or "Verily, I say unto you, feel not, for your God is a God of stone."

Why didn't you urge me to be of good cheer, or to be supple and strong? Why didn't you tell me that "courage" literally means what comes from the heart? Why was it always about "toughness"?

The tough may get ahead, beat the crowd, and gain a prize or two, but they're not the ones who inherit the earth.



Even when I try to look tough, I can't really pull it off.


  1. The beatitudes trump all. I need to remember this post on those occasions when my children seem too timid.

  2. This is so encouraging to me Bethany. I too have a tender heart that can sometimes love "too easily" and break just as quickly. Often my heart breaks and jumps for joy over things others simply do not understand: music, animals, weather, a good book, or a great sermon. I want to learn to be strong in the Lord without losing my compassion, my tenderness. I don't want to be teflon, I want to be cast iron, seasoned and sturdy. Thank you for constantly being a great example of what God can do with a heart like mine.

  3. Thumbs up, dear heart. I love you.

  4. Great post, Bethany! I needed to hear your message today! Many blessings to you!

  5. How about an old tough guys' perspective on toughness. There are two types of strength in the world. The first is like stone. It si singular, it stands and weathers. You can anchor yourself to it and build houses on it and it will always be there. The second is like a strand that has been woven into a rope or fabric. On its own, it is weak, but together, they are greater than the sum of thier parts. With your capacity to make and keep friends wherever you go, dont you think you are more like the latter? And in some ways weaves are superior to stones, after all, bulletproof vests are made from Kevlar and spidersilk weaves, not rocks.

    1. What a beautiful analogy, Lennon. I am going to adopt your picture as my image of strength -- the biblical promise of a strand of three that is not easily broken.