A few months ago, we had some really windy days –the kind that knock down power lines and blow my casement windows open — and a tragic thing happened. Jamal got knocked off our back stairs.
Jamal is a cactus my daughter bought years ago at Ikea. He’s one hell of a cactus. He sat ignored in my daughter’s room for about a year, then got moved to the outside stairs, where he was even more ignored. Occasionally I watered him when I remembered he was even there. But mostly he was forgotten.
Until one day when I walked past and he had a glorious yellow bloom bursting from the top of his prickly little head. I couldn’t believe it. I took a picture, told my daughter and we were in awe of him for a few days. Then Jamal’s bloom faded and we went back to forgetting him.
Until this year when the wind knocked him off his perch on our back stairs. I told Milena we needed to get some cactus planting materials and fix him. He’d lost all his stones and most of his dirt, but she claimed poverty. I kept forgetting to go buy the needed soil and rocks while Jamal sat and waited in his bent, little tin pot.
But did he moan or groan or act like the world was ending? Nope. Not that a cactus could, but I half expected him to do something dramatic and droop or pucker. Instead, he had the audacity to bloom. And this time, he gave us three blooms instead of one. Plucky Jamal, who was knocked to the ground, probably mostly starved, ignored, and in a beat up pot, not only survived, he produced three beautiful yellow blooms.
The irony wasn’t lost on me. It became even more clear when one of the beautiful roses in my favorite red vase in my kitchen, just up and died. The rose was in clean water in my cheerful, little kitchen full of white cabinets with red handles, surrounded by other beautiful healthy roses enjoying nice cool days. Yet that carefully tended rose rotted at the stem and died.
What the hell? How does a scrappy little cactus survive abandonment, a nearly fatal two story fall and loss of its foundation, and not only endure, but produce three flowers — when a perfectly cared for rose just up and dies?
It got me thinking about life and why some people seem to survive when you’d lay bets they wouldn’t, and others seem to wilt when they have it all. I think about things like that probably because I have way too much time on my hands.
Then I heard a Ted talk about grit, and it became clear, that was the difference. The ones who survive have grit, and that’s what makes them hang on, even when you wonder what they’re hanging on for. It was a great talk by a former teacher named Angela Duckworth, who wondered what made some students excel, when others, who were more intelligent gave up.
This woman’s been studying this phenomenon for years and even she confesses she still doesn’t know what parents can do to instill grit in their children. My theory is you’re either born with it, or not. But I think parents can nurture it by forcing their kids to do chores and things they don’t want to do because at least it teaches them that, if they can get through the crap, there’s relief at the end.
I think it’s that dream of things getting better that keeps us going. My friend Allegra got through a difficult divorce, then went back to graduate school with three kids in elementary school, and no child support, while working the whole time. She’s now got a great job, her kids are grown and one just graduated. If it wasn’t for her grit, I’m not sure what would have happened to them.
Grit and optimism can keep you blooming even in the toughest times, because you just never know when it’s all going to turn around — and it would be a terrible shame if you weren’t there to enjoy it.