It seems like every twenty or thirty years I embark on some kind of self-awareness exercise that involves reflecting on what I’ve left behind in terms of relationships, self-improvement efforts and good works. Am I happy or not?
When we face life’s challenges, sometimes some seemingly impossible to overcome, it’s how we handle those and proceed through life that tells our story. That’s when the values we live by—or don’t possess at all—are revealed. It’s our values and fundamental belief system that shapes our eventual behavior. So, I thought it might be fun to clarify a couple of those descriptors which are often inverted or confused.
Let’s begin with this question, “What are you made of?” If someone asked you that, what would you say? Would you describe yourself as tough or strong? Do you realize that those characteristics are not the same at all? If you’re confused with the difference, I can clarify. When faced with insurmountable challenges in life—do you try to shake them off and press on with determination? Or do you dig deep within yourself to discover an inner strength? One sounds more noble, doesn’t it? Well, one is. People don’t dig deep to discover inner toughness; they dig deep to discover inner strength. I believe when times are truly bad, it isn’t the tough who survive; it’s the strong.
When a person is tough, it can be easy for them to push their way through life, bully to the front of the line, be stubborn enough to never give in and resist backing down from a challenge or fight. Toughness is recognizable and can also be described as having thick skin, being able to handle anything and being physically capable. Tough, as a characteristic seems pretty superficial. A person doesn’t have to have a lot of depth to be tough.
Being strong, however is quite different. Strength is in one’s character and at the core, it means you are a survivor. The perfect illustration of such a person is the mother in the movie Saving Private Ryan. If you remember, there was a frail, sweet older woman, who sent her four sons off to war, only to find that eventually just one son remained alive. Each time she received the news of another son’s death in battle, she had the strength to wake up the next morning and continue with life. This woman was not tough; she was incredibly strong.
Another pair of words that are often confused but which describe a person’s core are the words courageous and gutsy. The difference is best illustrated by this story.
I had a friend named Susan who was beautiful, quite disarming and could talk anybody into anything. She had a charming Texas accent and was very smart—an irresistible combination. In her last couple decades on earth, Susan had made a name for herself—but not a good one. She pushed people into donating more money than many could afford to a charity she founded, she used questionable bookkeeping methods within that same charity, and she was ruthless in managing her husband’s career. Even though I was a friend to both her husband and her for many years, I couldn’t totally defend her behavior—especially after their mutual suicide. After they died, she came to me rather quickly.
There was a purpose for Susan’s initial visit which was to ask if I could help mitigate the damage to her reputation since she knew that I knew lot of the people she had always cared to impress. Susan was always concerned about her and her husband’s image and releasing control wasn’t easy for her—even on the “other side”. So, in the few weeks after her transition, she was still at it.
In that message, one thing surprised me. Susan said that she had always admired me and realized how much courage I had. I’m sure she was referring to sticking with my healing efforts for decades until I had conquered many chronic or incurable illnesses, overcoming professional betrayal and surviving financial devastation as a result of both. Susan specifically said about her courage compliment: “I had guts, but you had courage and I know the difference.”
Susan was bold and fearless, and she lived by the adage that the end justified the means. She had no qualms about any of her methods and ironically people seemed hesitant to simply say NO to her. Perhaps it was the public forum in which she chose to intimidate or maybe it was because everyone realized how ruthless she was. Susan, indeed, had guts. In the short-term that trait might produce results, but in the long-term, that trait can be devastating to one’s reputation.
Core values are developed in a number of ways. They can come through one’s life’s experiences, be taught by our family or even gained through religious exposure. These values are always based on strong beliefs which some of us can identify and some not. Still, there’s no question that we all have a core that either serves us well and strengthens us or is weak and wobbly as if created from sand.
When the events of the day shake us to our core—perhaps because the world around us has gravely disappointed us or our small, immediate network has let us down. When people we should trust tell us one thing one day and something totally different the other, when institutions we revered crumble in front of our eyes, and when our leaders turn out to be merely humans and flawed humans at that; it has an effect. When we experience societal transformations that leave us speechless or personal experiences that deliver a real blow and leave us devastated—the only place to look is within. We look to our core.
I happen to be someone who believes in God. I know within us all is one special place where God resides, so I try to make sure my core is compatible with the company it keeps. Others, not so inclined, leave a higher source out of the picture and ignore the fact that there may be a divine spark in us all that has simply been hidden. Looking for that spark might help us identify the core that drive us in life.
Self-assessment is beneficial. These questions might help. Are you deep or superficial? (Is there more to you than what people see?) Do you care about who you step on to get where you’re going? Are you as gracious to those who serve you (not talk down to them) and are you equally gracious to those you’re trying to impress (instead of sucking up)? Are you kind and loving to others or are you just focused on yourself? If you feel pretty good about your answers, smile. You’re way ahead of most.
I’d like to close with one last example of how to assess the core material of which each person is made. Since what we focus on expands, it seems that overwhelming success eventually acts like a magnifying glass to bring into focus how the person got to where they are. In other words, what a person was made of all along. So, if someone achieving greatness was always good and kind, they end up gracious. If they were self-focused, indifferent or cruel throughout life, they become even more so with their newly acquired power, money and celebrity.
Here is the closing metaphor. Behold the simple apple. In life, everyone wants a bite of the apple, so as life proceeds with some getting several bites—at some point—guess what becomes more and more evident along the way? The core. Yes, the core we so carefully hid throughout our entire life is now exposed for all to see! Eventually our core is revealed!
At that point, I hope you’ll be proud.