Updated: Mar 5
It seems like every twenty or thirty years I embark on some kind of self-reflective exercise to check in on what the trail looks like that I’m leaving behind. When we face life’s challenges – some seemingly impossible to overcome – it’s how we handle those and proceed through life that’s telling to others. That’s when the values we live by – or don’t have at all - are revealed. It’s our values or our fundamental belief system that shapes our behavior in life. I thought it might be fun to look at a couple of those, especially those that are often confused.
So, if anyone asked you “what are you made of” – what would you say? Would you describe yourself as tough or strong, realizing those traits are not the same, at all? This will help in that assessment: when faced with insurmountable challenges in life, do you try to shake them off and press on with a determination that’s hard to describe? Or, do you dig deep within yourself to discover some inner strength? One sounds a bit more noble, doesn’t it? People don’t dig deep to discover inner toughness – it is strength they yearn for. I believe when times are truly at their worst, 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, means at the core you’re a survivor. What comes to mind is a woman in the movie Saving Private Ryan. If you remember, there was a frail, sweet older woman, who sent her four sons off to war, found that eventually just one 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. She 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 she was very smart, too - an irresistible combination. In her last couple decades on earth, Susan had made a name for herself, not a good one. She pushed people into donating more money than they could afford to a charity she founded, used questionable bookkeeping methods with that same charity and 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 visit and that was to ask if I could help mitigate the damage to her reputation because she knew I knew lot of the people she had always cared to impress. Susan was always concerned about image and releasing control wasn’t easy for her, either. So, here she was, trying to manage her and her husband’s image even from the “other side”.
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 healing for decades until I had conquered many illnesses that besieged me, overcoming professional betrayal at one point and surviving financial devastation as a result of both. Susan specifically said:“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 justifies the means. She had no qualms pushing an unlikely donor in public to give more than they had and ironically people seemed hesitant to simply say NO to her. Perhaps it was the public forum she chose or maybe it was because they realized how ruthless she was. Susan, indeed, had guts. Periodically that trait might produce results, but it’s nothing on which to build a reputation.
Core values are developed in a number of ways. They can come through our life’s experiences, be taught by our family or even gained through religious exposure. Sometimes these are strong beliefs we can identify and other times they reveal themselves by our behavior. Still, there’s no question that we all have a core and if that core is solid, based on a belief system that will see us through and give us a safe place to land, retreat or recharge – we have it made.
Many of us today have been shaken to the core. Perhaps because the greater world around us has gravely disappointed us or our small, immediate world has let us down. When we have no idea what to believe, 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; when our leaders turn out to be merely humans and flawed humans at that, it had an effect. When we experience societal transformations that leave us speechless or personally devastating experiences that deliver a real blow, the only place to look is within.
I happen to be someone who believes in God – and I know within us all is one special place God resides - so I try to make sure my core is compatible with the company. Self-assessments aren’t that tough, just ask yourself a few additional questions. 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 are going? Are you as gracious to those who serve you (not talking down to them) as those we are trying to impress (not 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 ahead of the game.
I’d like to close with one last example of how to assess the core material of which a person is made. It seems that overwhelming success seems to act like a magnifying glass to bring into focus what a person is made of all along. So, if people are good and kind, they end up gracious. If they are nasty and ugly throughout life, they become even more dreadful with tons of money and celebrity.
This is the perfect metaphor for what I’m hoping to share in this blog. It’s a simple apple. Everyone wants a bite of that apple and come to think of it, that’s how Adam and Eve started this whole thing! So, as we proceed through life with many of us getting several bites – at some point we realize, the more of the apple we eat, the more that core will eventually be revealed!!