I know of three kinds of toughness – three ways of dealing with the hurts life sends our way.
The first way is to externalize it – offload it onto other people. When someone hits you, hit them back twice as hard – and if you can’t hit them, hit somebody else. If the world is afraid of you, it will hurt you less, is the idea. The downside is that you hurt a lot of innocent people, and you make it very difficult for people to tell you about things that hurt. This makes real intimacy impossible and puts you in a position of being constantly blindsided by things that people were too intimidated to warn you about.
The second way is to internalize – to “suck it up”. When something bad happens or you get a feeling you don’t like, just set it aside and don’t think about it. Over the short term, this works great; over the long term you wind up with an ever-growing landfill of unresolved emotional issues. The emotional energy from all of these situations hasn’t gone away; it’s still in there, like a capacitor, waiting to discharge into the first person who touches it.
The third way is to contextualize. For this to work, your life has to be built on something bigger than yourself – some cause, ideal, or relationship that puts everything in your life into perspective. This is your telos – your life’s chief end that everything else is oriented around. Mine is God’s kingdom; for others it might be their family or some political ideal. It’s a “higher yearning” that’s big enough to encompass any temporary travail. When the shock of pain hits you, you don’t rebuff the pain and you don’t try to absorb it. Instead you channel the pain through yourself into the telos beneath you and ground it out.
This doesn’t mean you get to ignore the pain. It still passes through you; you still have to process it and deal with it. But with a strong enough telos, you can know that this pain is not all there is. There is a bigger picture. You can still go on.
I know what pain feels like. I’ve been through boot camp, aching loneliness, and soul-crushing jobs. I’ve found that I can deal with any kind of hurt as long as it has a purpose. If I can see the golden lands at the end of the trail, I can put up with the thorny path.
As David Brooks says in his column “Making Modern Toughness”:
"The people we admire for being resilient are not hard; they are ardent. They have a fervent commitment to some cause, some ideal or some relationship. That higher yearning enables them to withstand setbacks, pain and betrayal.
"Such people are, as they say in the martial arts world, strong like water. A blow might sink into them, and when it does they are profoundly affected by it. But they can absorb the blow because it's short term while their natural shape is long term.
"There are moments when they feel swallowed up by fear. They feel and live in the pain. But they work through it and their ardent yearning is still there, and they return to an altered wholeness.
"In this way of thinking, grit, resilience and toughness are not traits that people possess intrinsically. They are not tools you can possess independently for the sake of themselves. They are means inspired by an end."
Just make sure the telos you build your life on is a sturdy one. If it collapses, so will everything built upon it.