Of Grit and Grace

Several years ago, had someone told me I would make the choice to compete in an endurance race that involved crawling under barbed wire through rocky mud pits, hurling oneself over 15 foot high walls and jumping over fire pits, I would have thought they were crazy. At a petite 5’3″, I am hardly an intimidating physical presence. But at age 45, I have two Warrior Dashes and five Tough Mudders under my (very muddy) belt.

Why did this particular form of torture–I mean physical exercise–become appealing to me? I could certainly do other forms of competition that involved considerably less cuts, scraps, and bruises.What these events had that a typical 10K race did not, was a test of grit. Could I endure not only the physical challenge, but the mental challenge of doing obstacles on the course that were frightening? How would I respond to the challenge of jumping off a two story high platform into icy water? In completing these races, I not only was able to train my body, but I was training my mind as well.

Dr. Martin Seligman has shown through research that we humans are very susceptible to learned helplessness. This happens when we experience powerlessness, loss of control, immobilization. This can occur from an acute traumatic event or from a persistent experience of defeat. The more trauma and defeat, the more entrenched learned helplessness becomes. Learned helplessness leads to depression, low resilience and increased susceptibility to further abuse or trauma. It becomes a re-traumatizing cycle that is difficult to maneuver past.

Creating experiences that retrain one’s brain from learned helplessness to control and resolve not only increases grit, it increases the grace that we need to heal. The word “grace” isn’t usually the first thing to come to mind when thinking of an endurance obstacle race. Here is where grace comes in: Many of the obstacles I was able to achieve. A few I tried, but slipped, fell or dropped short of the goal. On one obstacle, try as I might, I could not jump high enough to grab the rungs to even attempt to complete it. Even in these moments of “falling short,” I gave myself the experience of choice and control, and forgiveness when I could not manage. I gave myself the experience of grit when I was–literally sometimes–able to hang on just a little bit longer. I gave myself the experience of leaning on the help of others when I could not do it alone. I gave myself the experience of absorbing the sound of encouragement and acknowledgement. Yeah…that is a whole lotta grace right there.

While completing an endurance obstacle race might seem like it has little to do with the real crisis and challenge of our lives, particularly if we have experience with trauma, it truly does. Our brain’s neuroplasticity can “re-wire” its response to challenge by increasing our experience with success, choice and grace under pressure.

Do you have to get muddy, scrapped and bruised to achieve this grace and grit? Not at all.  But you should do something!

Here is my challenge to you: 

Sometime between Memorial Day and Labor Day, challenge yourself to do one thing that feels outside of your comfort zone. Fear of performance? Take voice lessons that end in a recital. Two left feet? Take your partner on a few dance dates. Uncomfortable being alone? Schedule some solo dates to the movies or out to dinner. Grit doesn’t have to be grimy. It should, however, stretch you in ways you didn’t think you could.

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