What It Takes to be Tough

Once in a while, I read a book which stays with me long after I’ve closed it. Given how much I read and how strong my opinions about literature are, this doesn’t happen as often as you might think. Sometimes the lives of fictional characters linger in my mind, sometimes I replay storylines as if they were viral video clips I have seen online, sometimes sentences stick in the crevices of my brain. I feel like there are themes and make-believe people and situations tattooed on the membrane of the tiny computer that lives in my skull. Often I finish the last page of a book, think “that was nice enough” and promptly forget about it. One recent example of a book that has stuck with me is the anthology Tough Women Adventure Stories, edited by, the appropriately named, Jenny Tough.

Tough Women Adventure Stories is a collection of essays from various brilliant women who had endured various feats of “grit, courage and determination”. From cycling the spine of the Andes on a bamboo bicycle to artic expeditions and endurance obstacle races, the women in these pages have achieved incredible, awe inspiring, jaw dropping things. But the story that stuck out most to me was that of adventurer Sarah Outen. Sarah, who is a patron for CoppaFeel! and therefore I am obliged to love her, was the first woman and the youngest person to row solo across the Indian Ocean and also the Pacific Ocean from Japan to Alaska (if you haven’t heard of her before, or seen her beautiful film Home, I heartily recommend it). But when asked to write about toughness, Sarah did something that none of the other women in the book did quite so explicitly. She wrote an essay on how recovering from PTSD and various health conditions had led her to redefine toughness.

Without wishing to sound like Carrie Bradshaw, it got me thinking about what it is to be a tough woman. So often we define toughness in terms of physicality. I have been called tough because I like to submerge my body in dwindling water temperatures. I have called others tough because they have done extreme things like running ultra marathons or walking a really long way. I think women who can lift heavy weights are tough. But really, when it comes down to it, all of these things are mostly about mental toughness, rather than anything else. Yes that mental toughness might be combined with physical toughness – strength or fitness, muscle or stamina, but when it comes down to it, it’s the brain that keeps them going. It’s the internal chatter, or perhaps ignoring the internal chatter, that persuades us to keep going, to get up again when we have fallen down, to let it out in a sweaty mess of salty tears and then carry on.

Right now, we are all having to dig deeper than we perhaps have done before. Covid is rumbling on and with new restrictions looking more and more likely every day, we’re all searching for a resilience to get up every day and keep going. We’re all turning to toughness to help us keep going when there’s not currently an end in sight to this weird, dystopian reality we’re living through. We might be separated from our family, missing our friends, craving the connection of colleagues. In the time of Covid-19, I’m convinced that toughness is just about carrying on. There is absolutely no doubt that the women in Jenny’s anthology achieved amazing things, but there’s something to be said for toughness which is actually just about doing the very best you can when the chips are buried somewhere below the earth’s core, the odds aren’t in anyone’s favour and survival is the only option.

So how do we cultivate toughness when we feel absolutely anything but? I went to a webinar with the incomparable Liz Gilbert and Julia Cameron a couple of weeks ago about creativity. In it, Liz said something that really struck me. She explained that despair is the feeling that tomorrow will be the same as today and I’ve been thinking about that a lot. We are in this weird space of every day feeling the same right now, but Liz (yeah we’re definitely on first name terms, promise) explained that nature will always mean that no two days are the same. Even if they feel like it, the place where the sun rises in the sky is a little different every day and the way the grass grows and the leaves fall is different. The earth has turned a little more. The way the weather changes and the seasons roll – all of those things are a break in the monotony and an antidote for despair. And, if you ask me, a reminder too of toughness.

Nature is tougher than we give it credit for and I think we can learn a lot about our own toughness evolution when we examine the trees and the grass and the rivers and the soil beneath our feet. From the roots of the oak tree that remain embedded in the earth, regardless of how hard the wind blows, to the leaf that holds on as long as possible when the autumn comes and it’s time to fall. The river that rushes along the banks, the earthworm that burrows its way to the surface of the grass when the rains have stopped. Nature is toughness in action, resilience in art forms. As far removed as we might feel from it, we’re all part of this too. And we are therefore innately tough. As humans we start from a place of resilience, determination, courage and grit. We were created when one sperm battled amongst how ever many others to make it to the egg and fertilise it. When hundreds or thousands of things could have gone wrong, we still made it from a bundle of cells without even a heartbeat to a living, breathing human who can feel a maelstrom of emotions at any one time and who knows what it is to suffer. So we know how to be tough. It has been in us for one day.

But what does toughness look like in humans? Yes, it is the fantastic and astounding feats of human endurance. Yes, it is those who participated in The World’s Toughest Race (if you haven’t watched yet OMG you must and come back to me with your thoughts). But it’s so much more (and less) than that at the same time. Toughness is about accepting that you might need help. It’s about getting out of bed when it feels like the walls are caving in. It’s about telling yourself just to breathe when panic is clawing at your ankles. It’s having the grit to carry on when doing just that feels impossible. It’s going to bed with the hope that tomorrow will be a bit better. It’s getting your kids up and ready for school after a sleepless night. It’s making sure there’s food on the table. It’s fully showing up for work when you know your job might be in jeopardy. It’s writing poems and stories and words because you hope they might help other people.

I don’t know how we find toughness at the moment. I wish I had a formula that would all make us feel a bit more solid at a time when everything feels so elastic and formless. But one thing I do know is that reading Sarah’s story, and the stories of the other women in the book, made me marvel at the human capacity to keep chugging on when doing just that feels impossible. Every single story detailed some kind of crisis of confidence that we can all identify with. While we might not be running up mountains or rowing down white water, dodging rocks and literally risking our lives in the name of adventure, life certainly feels a bit like an endurance race at the moment. I also know that each and every one of us has toughness in us, even if it feels like it’s buried deep within.

If you’re feeling lost or you’re in despair, remember toughness is built into your DNA. It is literally in the fibre of our beings to keep swimming, to battle circumstances that might not be in our favour and come out on top. Even when it doesn’t feel like it, you’ve got this. We’ve all got this. We’ve just got to be tough.

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