I have been thinking and reading a lot about the concept of grit, as my friend and coach Caroline Adams Miller is writing a book about it and Angela Duckworth, well known for her research in this area, has been writing and speaking on the topic. Grit is all about being resilient. Failing and getting back up. Not expecting to be praised for every little thing and realizing that life is not perfect. The subject is timely given our current societal norms where children and even adults expect to be praised and not criticized; where thinking outside of the box and potentially failing is not valued; and where taking a risk is viewed as the wrong path to take because the result may not be immediate success.
I am completely drawn in by this conversation as I feel l that I have lived a life that has made me develop grit. So, what in the world does grit have to do with macaroni and cheese and green beans?
At age 16 (I am now approaching 49), I sustained a spinal cord injury rendering me a quadriplegic. I couldn’t move from my neck down and at the outset could barely move my arms even though I had some bicep strength. After a month in the hospital, I was transferred to the Burke Rehabilitation Center in White Plains, New York, where I spent the next 8 months adjusting to life in a wheelchair. A component of my rehabilitation included muscle strengthening and the ability to independently complete activities of daily living that were within my capacity.
After a few months, I gained more control in my arms and I had some bicep strength. I could not (and still cannot) move my fingers and wrists, but through a splint device and a special fork, I was able to hold an eating utensil. Up until a certain point I had been fed each meal by either an aide or a nurse. Breakfast was nonnegotiable, as I was unable to eat in bed independently because I don’t have movement in my triceps; however, when sitting up, I gained enough strength to lift my arms well enough to get food to my mouth, especially my right arm.
A memory, so vivid in my mind from that time, was a night I got my dinner consisting of macaroni and cheese and green beans. One of my favorite nurses, John, came into my room and moved the bedside table with the food tray in front of me. He put my special fork into the pocket on my splint and got all of the food into a position where I could reach it. He then gave me my call bell and started to walk out of the room. When I asked where he was going he said, “You can eat by yourself, call me when you are done.”
I was shocked, angry, scared, and in disbelief. My first reaction was to yell for him to come back, and I did, but that resulted in nothing. I then sat completely still, staring at the plate and I remember tears starting to well up inside and then just crying; heaving sobs in anger and frustration with my tears. To this day, almost 33 years later, I remember looking at the clock: John left the room at precisely 5:30, I cried until 5:50, and then I stared at the plate until 6.
At 6 p.m., I was hungry. I realized that I was either going to have to try or forgo eating, so I lifted up my arm and stuck my fork into the macaroni and cheese first. About half of the forkful fell off before it got to my mouth, but I succeeded in eating something. My next try was green beans. Again, at least half fell off the fork, this time onto my lap, but I did eat what remained on the fork. I continued to use my arm and my fork to get bites of food and probably lost about half of the meal. But by 6:30, I had eaten some of both and done it by myself. When I finished, I didn’t feel relieved or proud of my accomplishment. I remember feeling tired, resentful and mad at John for making me feed myself. So I called him on the nurses’ bell. When he came back into the room he looked at the plate and said, “Not bad, next time you will likely eat more.” And he picked up my tray of food and took it out of the room.
I put my head down in silence because I didn’t know what to say or do. And then it hit me, for the first time in over six months I had actually done something for myself without help. And it wasn’t some minuscule task. It was one of the most important activities of daily living, feeding myself! It was a victory. It was hard and it was messy, but it was a victory. And each time I fed myself was easier, less tiring, not as frustrating, and resulted in more in my mouth than on the plate or in my lap.
John doesn’t know this, at least I never told him, but now that I think back, he did exactly what he should have. He knew I was ready. He walked out and knew that I would either figure it out or be hungry. And at some point, I would have to try. And taking that first step, trying, resulted in all the supplemental steps and ultimately achieving the results of feeding myself without assistance. And that’s a big deal when you are 16. Did I really want to be out in a public place with someone feeding me? No. Especially not if it is something that I could do for myself.
I’m sure there were times before my infamous macaroni and cheese and green bean dinner where I developed grit. But looking back, that is the day, time and event that sticks in my mind as an example of my being resilient. Trying something that was hard and something that, in my mind, was impossible. To make myself do something that wasn’t going to be perfect, but was a first step in getting to a result. And, in the end, showing myself that if I put my mind to it and I had the capacity and desire, I could do it. I was resilient. I may have had a broken neck, but I also had grit!
Follow the adventures of Sheri Denkensohn-Trott and her husband Tony Trott on www.happyonwheels.com.