From Grit to Girth: sabbatical takes hold

I Used to Have Grit; Now I’m Getting GIRTH. 

And, oh-my-goodness,  it feels go-o-o-d!

I’ll say more momentarily about what I mean by girth, but first, you know what I mean by “grit,” right? That character trait that everyone is talking about in the business world, and that now parents and educators are being urged to develop in kids? Yeah, that thing we all admire and strive for: The ability to work hard toward a goal, persevere through struggle, fail, get up, try again, and, finally, when you least expect it…. Succeed.

Grit gets things done. Grit makes sh*t happen. Really big things. Some important things. And really darn well.

I know something about grit. I had it. Big time. (In fact, I still have it: I just took Angela Duckworth’s quiz from her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, which started this craze, and let’s just say: she’d be proud of my score).

You see, I started my gritty ways quite young. In college I maintained a near perfect 4.0 and graduated in the top 3% of my Ivy League University.

…..By 25, I was running my own non-profit consulting business, being flown all over the country in efforts to improve life for kids who were those hardest hit by multiple layers of structural disadvantage.  My most esteemed project: serial interviews with young offenders–those deemed most likely to “kill or be killed” in the most violent neighborhood of one of our country’ most violent cities; followed by report-outs to key policy makers. It was hard core. Important. Soulful. And I loved it. (And I honestly came to love those kids, tender souls under hard exteriors)…

….Later, I went to graduate school to become a minister. While I was in seminary, I continued consulting very long hours in the non-profit world, working long weeks without weekends, doing lots of travel, and lots and lots of writing for policy makers, program makers, and decisions-makers at large who could impact change for poor kids and families all over the country.

….By 30, on top of my graduate studies in seminary, I was earning $80,000 a year doing legitimately really good work…. For many, many many hours a week, so that I could pay my tuition and cover all life expenses. I didn’t want any debt to pay back once I became a minister.

….When I was finally ordained a Reverend by a mainline denomination at age 38 (yeah, it took me awhile to do it all debt-free: hence the word, perseverance)…the chair of the ordaining committee whispered to my clergy mentor:

Now we have the new gold standard for ordination papers.

You get the point.

But please know: I’m not really bragging here. Because, at the risk of over-sharing, I’ll let you in on a little secret:

I wrote that gold standard ordination paper while sitting on the toilet. Because by 38, my body was ripped apart by stress, overriding, trying trying trying, and doing the “right thing” by every standard that seemed convincing to me. 

I used to joke to close friends, “I do my best work in the bathroom.”  In all honesty, if I wanted to get anything done, I had to do a good portion of it in the bathroom. After all, I spent several hours a day there being ravaged by horrendous digestive symptoms that a few years later would increase in severity until I had to have major surgery just to delay the worsening of the condition just a little longer.

You see, the culture we live in loves grit, but, as I came to discover, bodies don’t. At least mine didn’t.

You might remember that I am on sabbatical right now, having taken a year off from my current work, which, as you probably also know, in recent years has focused on building resilience in more intimate human systems: the family. This work, I have truly, truly loved.

But my body was full out demanding a sabbatical–my daily headaches had reached a grand crescendo–so, finally, with much urging from Niels, I relented.

Slowing down has not been easy for me. It’s scary business, actually, to face yourself and how you feel each day without a long to-do list or a bunch of distractions. As much as we all think we want space and time, when you have it, you discover: here I am, in full, messy, glory, and I have no idea how to proceed!

I pictured sabbatical as deeply contemplative: just me, my yurt, meditating, doing art, making healthy food…. But storms have moved through me, and through my life in this time, and I have gotten caught up again and again in this difficulty or that drama. I could say that it’s because I am a parent, and no parent of a young child is ever truly on sabbatical, but in all honesty, that’s not the real challenge.

The real obstacles to serenity are inside me. Because when you are used to a fast pace and intensity, you find yourself creating it to fill every lull. 

It turns out, sabbatical is a practice like any other: when you notice you have strayed, you simply, gently, return to it.

I think it was six months before I could remember I was on sabbatical for more than a few hours. Why am I not getting more done? That familiar voice would creep in, and before I knew it: I had turned some relaxing hobby into an intense project (Case in point: the mosaic I am making between the flagstones of the back patio. That project can go either way: deeply meditative and prayerful, or a race to finish and make it magazine-worthy).

See, the thing is, I can’t use my grit to rest, to heal, or to open to what is trying to happen at deeper levels of my being, my body, my life, or my relationships. Grit is about getting things done, and that’s not what this sabbatical is about. It’s not about writing books, or creating the most beautiful home ever, or becoming the perfect parent. No. This sabbatical is not even about achieving perfect health.

This sabbatical is about taking the chance to notice how I am being with myself, and seeing if perchance there might just be a way to be kinder, more accepting and loving while I feel what I feel, do what I do (even when what I feel is hard, and what I do in not what I want: go to another doctor’s appointment; retrieve the dog from the pound after she ran away, again.).

For several years now, I’ve been teaching parents how to attune to their children… How to sense what is happening in their children’s inner lives and connect to them, help their kids “feel felt,” even while holding limits and expectations. It’s a delicate art, and those of us who have been practicing this kind of parenting for some years, find that we must always *continue* learning how to be with our children in a way that invites closeness, because it changes all the time, through different developmental stages and through all the shenanigans life throws at us.

Well, now I am taking the chance to notice and connect to myself in that way. And it’s much harder than connecting to my child, but ultimately, I think self-attunement might just hold the keys to the kingdom of my health and well-being. My symptoms have been dissolving, slowly, as I settle in to this time, though they roar to the surface when I push too hard in any way (even if I push too hard toward health!).  My body is showing me the way in this new life. And it’s requiring a rewiring of my basic stance to each day, each moment. See,

Grit is an inner stance that is always urging for more, for better.

But Girth is an inner stance that says: feel who you already are; feed who you already are; love who you already are.

Girth is about arriving in my own substantiality as a person, as this particular person I am. 

Let me be clear: Girth is not necessarily about body size, though it could be. It’s about being my right-sized self in every way, and living at my right pace, loving myself and others in a way that is right for me. It’s about discovering what is nourishing for me, which might be different than what is nourishing for others. For example: Leah and Niels are both vegan, and I crave, yearn for, and devour meat. Niels loves to listen to music. I savor silence.

While grit aims for becoming successful; girth aims for becoming human. The specific human you are, that is, in the body you’ve got. 

Grit can be measured externally, with a check list (like the one I ranked high on in Angela Duckworth’s book). But girth is more something we sense and feel, it’s not necessarily objectively measurable.

Girth isn’t a destination, and it’s not made up of things you can check off a to-do list. It’s a way. A path. One might even call it spiritual: the spiritual practice of becoming a particular human, that is. But you don’t have to think of it that way. You can think of it in any number of ways…. But this is what I know about it so far for me:

Girth is about living in my body, which, it turns out, takes great courage. It takes courage to feel what my body feels, to know what my body knows, to love what my body loves, and to stand up for what my body believes in. There’s lots to face when we come home to our own bone and flesh and sinew–lots of stress, stored emotions and outdated habits are stored in our bodies. But if we can stay, remaining open to what’s there, compassionate and welcoming as we approach what the body holds, much begins to change. And heal. Priorities shift. New knowledge is revealed.

One of my guides in this time is Grace Quantock, a wise, courageous young woman in Wales, who, in addition to coaching people who are learning to live full lives with chronic illness, she is something of a horse-whisperer. She told me recently that horses can feel through the vibration of their hooves on the ground when someone is approaching–they even know who that someone is–when they are still a mile away! They get that knowledge through their hooves, through their bodies, which can feel the specific vibration of the person’s footsteps on the ground. That’s how discerning their bodies are!

Our bodies are like that: taking in information on so many levels, metabolizing and integrating complexity at an alarming rate, and therefore, able to sense into the heart of the matter more efficiently than the disembodied brain.

I’ve been noticing that despite how it may seem, living with less grit and more girth, well, it’s actually making me more efficient. And I think it’s like the horse and her hooves. Through my body, I know stuff. Seems like my body knows things that my brain has been trying to figure out for decades.

The thing is, I don’t think my body is the only brilliant one. I think that’s just the way of bodies, really. I think it’s amazing what all our bodies know, once we slow down and listen. We know what nourishes. We know what we value. We know where the obstacles lay, where they come from, and just what will dissolve them. We know what to prioritize: what zings with life, and what has become dead weight. We know when we are approaching a task simply to achieve something the world will admire, and when it is feeding our souls. We know what our children need. We know what we need. We know who we are, and we know how to let our lives unfold from there, organically.

Our bodies also know what truly supports our life and existence. Our bodies love what supports them. We are all receiving support all the time. There is a whole network of impersonal systems supporting our lifestyles–from farm workers to truck drivers to the people in Amazon warehouses who box up the things we order–but in our fast-paced, mind-driven lives, we don’t notice until we stop and make ourselves (“Now it’s time for my gratitude practice”). We are also held in more intimate webs of support. Our bodies are taking it all in: our bodies feel the Earth holding us, the sun on our skin; they feel the warm bodies of partners and children that helps us know we are home and loved, they feel when nutrition enlivens cells, and the miracle of a letter arriving at the door with the slanted handwriting of your father-in-law who lives in Holland.

Grit gives the illusion that it’s up to me, my work, my achievement, what I can do and get done… And in all that straining, what gets overlooked is all the support going into every endeavor, from every possible source. The beauty of feeling the support being given is that, well, we can more fully receive it. We can rest into it. Girth says, “Ahhhhh! Yes, support!” Our bodies come to feel our connectedness, when we listen, and they loooove it.

Grit asks us to override too much of what makes us human, and that comes at great price. The price to my body was extreme, and I’m not alone. Some of the folks most praised for their “success” have had to shut down human noticing, human caring, to get there.

Girth says, go ahead and risk being the body/being you are; notice, feel and rest into all that is being given to you, and by whom. And from there, the impulse to give back, to participate, to put yourself in the mix of things in just the right way, will arise again.

Grit says, overcome your humanness.

Girth says, arrive in it.

This is what I think, though believe me, I am far from knowing much of anything about this yet. But from what I’ve glimpsed:

Grits gets lots and lots and lots and lots of bright, shiny, impressive things done: things the world will praise you for, give you awards for. Yep, grit gets thing done.

But Girth? Girth gets the right things done–the things that are right for *me* which might well be different than what is right for you–and frankly, not a lot else. But, honestly, who cares?

My sabbatical isn’t really officially over until October, but in all honesty, I’ve gotten more real work done in this time than in the two decades of employment that I enjoyed before this break. Soon, soon I will be making my way back into the official workforce again. But there’s no going back to grit once you’ve tasted girth. Not for me, anyway.

So what’s next then? Building a girthful work life.

But first, a nap.

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