What comes to mind when you think of toughness? What do you think is its essence? Its quintessential expression?
A grim stare, set jaw, and balled fist?
What do you think toughness requires? What sets the strong apart from the weak?
Incredible stubbornness? Masochistic or even sociopathic tendencies?
Well, we can easily find these manifestations of toughness, but I think the quintessence toughness is much less obvious:
The most powerful type of toughness is represented by the most nonserious of things: the smile.
In World War I, when the British soldiers were stuck in a horrifying stalemate of trench warfare with the Germans, surrounded by piles of rotting corpses and chunks of rotting flesh…sleeping to a symphony of bullets, mortars, and artillery on a bed of their dead comrades strewn about the floor…with no way to advance or retreat…how did they deal with their predicament?
The only way they could: by smiling. By releasing tension through morbid jokes. By seeing the humor in the absolute absurdity of their circumstances.
That’s real toughness. Not simply bearing the cross but doing so cheerfully. Not just holding back complaints but viewing the current predicament as an opportunity to find some sort of joy. Anything, no matter how slight or consoling, and deciding that is what deserves your emotions.
The smiling opponent is the one to fear: he’s hardest to beat. His smug grin silently mocks every mistake and shrugs off every successful strike. He never loses his composure and flails or gives you the satisfaction of a wince or grimace. You might win in the end, but at what cost? It’s going to take everything you’ve got and you’ll be walking away with some scars too.
While you might agree with me so far, there’s probably a nagging doubt. When things go bad, the last thing we usually feel is cheer. We mope, sulk, and growl. We wonder why us, why now, and why here. The last thing we want to do is smile.
This is the result of improperly calibrated perceptions and expectations.
We must never forget that the physical, intellectual, and social comforts of modern civilization have softened the reality that life is, and always will be, a never-ending, wildly unpredictable game of competition and selection. The trials and processes of evolution and survival of the fittest regulate this game. Thus, turmoil is inherent and unavoidable.
The romantic notion that we can somehow make our way in the world through honeyed thoughts, candied smiles, and cloying words is nonsense. Only the toughest survive the rigors of existence, and even they have a time of it.
Nature smiles at the economic, political, and social devices that we erect to try to change the rules of biology and escape its commotion. In time, these futile attempts to shift the pressures of life onto the backs of others always crumble. The people that rely solely on the collective effort for their survival eventually find themselves without support, and soon after, at last gasp.
Remember that not too long ago, our forebears that had to chase, fight, and kill to survive. They expected hardship. They were willing to face the worst. They embraced the fact that the universe, in all its apparent tranquility, is a carefully balanced chaos of forces we barely understand.
If we’re to bear upon its journey, we too must be a force of nature. Positive visions and convictions are the muses of optimism, but their inspiration is fleeting if not supported by a backbone of steel and indefatigable ability to smile.
Know this: You’re going to face many situations in your life that call for toughness and how you respond is going to shape your destiny in profound ways.
Are you going to keep pursuing that goal despite the obstacles or are you going to decide it’s more than you can handle? Are you going to let your opponent have his way with you or are you going to fight to win and, if it comes to it, go down swinging?
Whatever you do, don’t forget that the smirk is your deepest source of fortitude. And that no matter how ugly it gets, there’s always something to smile about, even if it’s just the simple fact that you’re in the game and can make a go at it. Or, as Oscar Wilde put it, “Two men look out a window. One sees mud, the other sees the stars.”