When having a conversation with anyone– with or without a spinal cord injury– we garner information about their attitude, sense of grit, and/or capacity for resiliency within a few minutes. I’ve become slightly obsessed with this concept of GRIT reading many articles over the past few years identifying grit as one of the qualifying characteristics of successful people; only 100 years ago, this didn’t matter because everyone had grit in some form, or people simply did not survive.
For over a decade now, I have the privilege and honor of writing with high school girls in the woods of our White Mountains in New Hampshire. We write about what it means to recognize and develop our own sense of grit and resiliency. We discuss the helicopter parent vs. the hummingbird parent– those who forever hover and those who only swoop in when safety or survival is at risk. The idea is to be more hummingbird and less helicopter, but this is hard for a lot of parents who want to protect their child from EVERYTHING, which impacts their inherent ability to develop grit earlier on. Collectively, we decide grit is the strength to endure.
We have also talked in the woods about my official position as a blog contributor for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. “You girls know,” I said, “about Christopher Reeve, right,” more as a statement than a question. But then, the quizzical looks, darting glances of the 15 middle and high school students showed me they indeed did not know about Christopher Reeve. I explained how he was the original Superman, tall, dark, and handsome, and how he had a horrific spinal cord injury while in a horseback riding accident many years ago. But that when we examine the equation of risk vs. reward, he would not have been the kind of person to regret ever having gone horseback riding, despite this kind of complex disability, which ultimately ended his life due to health complications related to infected pressure sores.
His wife, Dana, who perhaps had even more grit than her Superman, stood by her husband, helping to develop the charitable foundation in their name to research cures and treatments for paralysis due to spinal cord injuries and other neurological disorders. Talk about resiliency, Dana ultimately lost her life at only 44 years of age, only 17 months after her husband’s death, due to lung cancer. Talk about resiliency, their son Will, goes on to live his life, despite overwhelming tragedy and continues to advocate for the paralysis community on behalf of the Foundation.
We connect all of this talk about grit and resiliency with how nature models this for us– about how cool it is when trees grow out of giant rocks and how tiny flowers survive alpine temperatures and gusty winds. We watch how rushing water makes the stones smooth and beautiful, but they are still rocks at their foundation, hard, strong, and full of thousands of years’ worth of adversity. Nature is imperfect, flawed, and still comes back after the drought or the flood or the fire, not because she wants to, but so she can thrive.
Richard Louv in Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life discusses how back in the day every kid climbed trees. This is how we, as children, developed our core strength, how we built our arm muscles and finger grip, and, yes, even our individual grit through problem solving and independence. Sure, climbing a tree even only 15 feet up is risky; just as walking on the rocks across a river bed could certainly cause an injury, but leaders like Christopher and Dana Reeve would have encouraged the crossing and the climbing because they make us better thinkers and stronger humans. Even Superman himself would still have ridden horses, because we can’t live in fear of what could happen if we fall. Thank you to those experienced families with spinal cord injuries who have paved the way, modeling for the rest of us the power of resiliency and true grit; your callouses may have formed differently; your muscles or grip strength may feel non-existent, but your grit strength, keeps you standing tall even when sitting down. And for those of you just joining this world of spinal cord injury, you are now building a different kind of muscle memory. The fortitude and resolve that you have tackled your life with so far will make getting back into life a little bit easier.
Heather Krill is a writer- wife- teacher-mom who lives in the White Mountains of NH with her husband, Geoff, a paraplegic and professional skier, and their two children, Carver and Greta who are 7 and 6. Please check out her novel True North, website www.heatherkrill.com, and @heatherkrill1 on Twitter.