On Grit

One of the qualities I’ve really had to cultivate during my life with rheumatoid arthritis is grit. Defined as courage and resolve, grit has kept me going through tough times that I did not know how to navigate.

I also like to use the words pluck, mettle, and backbone. All of these adjectives help me envision my fortitude through RA flares, surgeries, physical therapy sessions, fatigue, and more. Sometimes grit has meant literally gritting my teeth and bearing through the pain. Sometimes it has meant girding my mind and moving forward even when I wasn’t sure if it was possible.

One of my favorite movies that explores this character attribute is “True Grit” (2010) starring Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld (based on the 1968 novel by Charles Portis). The majority of the characters are men who work as cowboys, criminals, and bounty hunters. You start by thinking these guys are the tough guys. But then you realize that the young girl played by Steinfeld is truly the toughest of them all.

Steinfeld’s character shrewdly negotiates several deals towards the ultimate goal of tracking down her father’s murderer. Then she goes on the hunt herself and weathers rugged territory and dangerous grown men. She ultimately survives being kidnapped and near-death.

Grit comes in all shapes and sizes

The story is perfect poetry because it upends who we traditionally think of as tough survivors. In the end strong muscles, physical ability, and male fortitude doesn’t outlast the smarts and grit of a young girl determined to find justice.

This story resonates with me because I had to find grit and strength as a young girl living with RA. I was small and physically weak, but learned to cope with chronic pain and physical disabilities. I learned that I needed to channel and use my grit to manage flares and keep up my physical therapy through pain to maintain my health.

I also appreciate the irony of so many people I have encountered throughout my life who feel sorry for me or look down at me because they perceive that I am weak. While in reality, I am much stronger and strong-willed than they could ever understand. The reason I am still here and still pursuing a quality of life is because of my deep sense of grit. I just keep on trucking.

Grit must also be cultivated

While I may have some natural grit, I also think it is something that I had to cultivate and practice. I have been through periods where I struggled to keep up my courage. At these times I have sought encouragement from my husband, family, and friends. Another important practice has been to self-talk or tell myself the story of how I would endure the challenging situation.

For me, grit has also involved a resolve not to accept a situation at face value. This may sound ridiculous—how can I not accept a reality? But it’s really about deciding that while that may be the current reality, it doesn’t have to be the future. For example, I may be having a flare today but that doesn’t mean it will be with me tomorrow. Change is inevitable. So what can I do to make change happen quicker or more completely? What can I do to affect the change that I want to experience. In the film, Steinfeld’s character is infamously annoying because she refuses to accept situations that she dislikes. Instead, she negotiates or changes what is happening. Sometimes no is the answer.

Grit is not easy and it takes effort. I have to make choices about when to use it because it’s too exhausting to apply at all times. But I am thankful for my own version of true grit. It keeps me going.

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