Three books crossed my path recently that share a message, albeit in different ways. They are about the power of resilience and the value of looking inwards for answers.
In 1995, grieving her mother, not knowing what she was doing in life, dabbling in heroin, loving the wrong men, losing the right ones, Cheryl Strayed made a decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She walked 1,100 miles through California and Oregon, mostly alone, carrying a pack she called Monster.
Her book, Wild, subtitled A journey from lost to found, recounts her resourcefulness in going on, increasing the miles she walked each day, finding water and feeding herself, making camp each night. She earned back her own respect through doing something that was hard, that took courage. She fought off a bear, survived her solitude—she saw no one for her first six days—and ran out of water. She lost most of her toenails, and then lost her boots, mid-hike. She became alive to her own strengths and witnessed her capacity to bring herself to each day.
When we’re adults, we don’t have our parents to push us anymore. Sometimes we have a mentor or a friend who will but it’s rare. We pussyfoot around each other, careful not to overstep boundaries. Giving advice on life and choices can be construed as ‘interfering’. We’re supposed to be able to do this ourselves. But often we can’t. In a world of the ‘individual’, we have to call on our own resources, our mental strength.
Amy Morin’s book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do identifies behaviours that control you. Strayed’s experience is an exemplar of realising, identifying and responding to those behaviours.
For instance, number 3- ‘[Mentally strong people] don’t shy away from change’. Strayed’s realisation that she had to change her life is there, on page 1. ‘My solo three-month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail had many beginnings. There was the first, flip decision to do it, followed by the second, more serious decision to actually do it, and then the long third beginning of [preparation].’ (Strayed, 2007). Morin says that mentally strong people don’t expect immediate results or give up after the first failure. Forty minutes into her hike, ‘the voice inside my head was screaming, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’
Mentally strong people don’t focus on things they can’t control and they don’t dwell on the past. Walking the trail meant living only for that day and ‘each day on the trail was the only possible preparation for the one that followed.’ When she loses her boot, and throws its useless companion over the escarpment to join its mate, she knew there was only one option—to keep walking.
Perhaps, most especially pertinent, mentally strong people don’t fear time alone. ‘They can tolerate being alone and they don’t fear silence.’ (Morin 2016).
And this is what makes me think of another contributor to this discussion who enters from a different angle.
Susan Cain’s message is about the power of introverts. When we prize extroversion, performance, collaboration, we devalue the contributions of the quiet. She begs us to ‘stop the madness for group work’ which makes me applaud. I loathe teamwork. I used to wriggle out of the inevitable interview question with some embroidered half-truths. I’m not a borderline sociopath. I get along with people in the office fine but when left alone, I produce my best work.
Susan says that we need to value the privacy, the autonomy and freedom of working alone: ‘we need to have our own revelations; we need to go to the wilderness.’ Which brings me back to Cheryl Strayed and mental strength.