This Old House Is Not Mentally Tough
I’ve always been on board with the theology that claims Your Body is a Temple, but lately my body feels more like an episode of This Old House.
Plumbing woes, electrical outages, and cracks in the once nearly-flawless exterior all remind me of a road well-traveled. Along with charm and character come windows painted shut from coat upon coat of fresh paint applied to compensate when the latest coat begins to chip.
But all of this reaches a breaking point. The revelation that comes in mid-life is that whatever you’ve been trying so hard your whole life to be, probably isn’t going to come to pass if it hasn’t already. Especially if it’s something you’ve been forcing.
I once believed that I could be anybody I wanted to be, or thought I *should* be.
Now I know I’ll never be anybody but myself.
I had just plopped down in my squeaky office chair to tackle some paperwork, when my eye caught the spine of a book on the top shelf of the bookcase: “Mentally Tough” circa 1987.
It had been years since I’d laid eyes on this book and frankly, I couldn’t believe I’d held onto it through more than one city, apartment, and moving van.
Immediately, the image of my father sitting in his huge brown recliner, hands gripping the arm rests, filled my mind.
I’d been frustrated and disillusioned and had come to him that day expecting sympathy and a shoulder to cry on.
What I got was a swift kick in the ass.
I’d been complaining about my new job. I was two years out of college and working in the frantic and lawless Advertising industry. I’d been wooed away from my first job with a highly reputable agency by another highly reputable agency that promised me the opposite of the sweat shop atmosphere I was looking to escape.
Surprise, the new agency wasn’t a lick different. In many ways, it was worse. When I shared my concerns with the head of the department who’d hired me under the pretense of working fewer hours, he looked at me as if I’d spoken in tongues.
As a young twenty-something, I was aghast at the injustice of it all, and I spilled this anguish on my father expecting him to dry my eyes, kiss my boo-boos, and send me on my way with an excuse note, as he’d always done.
What I got was a verbal lashing at my ungratefulness in having a job when others were not so lucky. I got a lecture on growing up, topped off by him placing a shiny new copy of “Mentally Tough” in my hands and sending me out the door into the cruel world with nothing more than the unwelcome book and a pat on the back.
As I now comb through the pages of the book, I see that I made it about fifty pages in before giving up. It all seems familiar, the pie charts and graphs on understanding and controlling your emotions and how mood control dictates ideal performance state.
Written from the perspective, I imagined, of a gruff P.E. teacher sporting short polyester shorts and a whistle around his neck, it didn’t speak to me at all. I was (and still am) a quiet, introspective soul and after several decades of trying to be otherwise, I accept this as my fate. I am not competitive and have no desire to reach “peak performance” with my body or emotions, for that matter.
Although I never finished the book, it served as a somewhat unattainable goal through most of my adult life: to be “mentally tough.” It’s what most of the men in my life wanted from me: my bosses, my father, my husband, or so I thought.
And each year that passed in which I tried to put on the warrior face I needed to succeed in life, it was like slapping another coat of paint on the window frame. And we all know what happens after too many coats of paint have been applied to an old window: it will no longer open.
That’s right, it will NO LONGER DO WHAT IT WAS DESIGNED TO DO.
It no longer opens to the light and the sun and lets in fresh air. Soul-cleansing cool, fresh air, studded with birdsong and fresh jasmine to renew the mind.
It no longer opens to let out the bad air. The burnt toast-dusty-stifling hot stagnant air that threatens to choke us if we don’t provide an outlet for it to dissipate.
I smile wistfully at this old book as I toss it onto the donate pile I’ve started in the corner of the room. I laugh because I am free of this book and all it implies.
Because if forty-five has taught me anything, it’s that there’s a place in this world for people who are NOT mentally tough. The world desperately needs us, in fact. We may not be running staff meetings, arguing tough cases, or bringing difficult people to their knees.
But we are paying attention to those who are hurting, those who can’t speak for themselves. We are mothering friends through difficult circumstances and raising children to be empathetic creatures.
So, friends, I intend to keep up the slow and tedious process of scraping off the old layers of paint. The lies and “if only's” I used to tell myself, the masks I applied to cover up my vulnerability.
Coat by coat, it will come off, and eventually the window will be stripped down to the original, God-given wood it was intended to be.
And it will open. Letting in the crisp, fresh air full of promise and cleansing light, and out will go all the bad, negative junk that’s been festering. Until eventually, that window will remain an open portal of joy, love, and grace.
My father might not agree, but that’s a whole lot better than being “mentally tough” in my opinion.