On Grit and Grace

During my three-quarter creative writing sequence my junior year I hit a major rut. It was in the first few months of the course, one designed specifically for writing majors that involved writing, workshopping, writing, workshopping, workshopping, and more workshopping. My professor and I had a meeting to discuss the latest short essay I had turned in, a lyrical piece about the state meet for Nordic skiing my freshman year of high school, an essay in which I spared no details in describing the snow, the rhythm of the skis, and the soaring elation crossing the finish line. But all it really was, all eight pages of it, was a lot of elegantly crafted sentences without any grit. “It’s beautiful, but boring,” was the blow I was driven by my professor, a man who seemed to repudiate bullshit from the very core of his being. Likely seeing the look of sheer terror and paralyzing self-doubt that had instantaneously plastered itself across my face, he elaborated. He explained that in life, there are sometimes moments of pure, uncomplicated loveliness, moments he called Moments of Grace. He meant grace, I think, in some sort of secularized version of what the dictionary describes as “a divinely given blessing” or “the free favor of God.” The race I had detailed in my essay, though certainly a physical struggle, was a description of a triumphant moment that contained no “heat,” as my professor referred to it. Heat, literarily speaking, entails tension, conflict, and more often than not, pain or discomfort—be it emotional, psychological, or physical. Moments of Grace, he explained, are rare and beautiful, but if you want to grab people, if you want your writing to reach out and touch your readers, you have to write where it hurts, write where things weren’t easy or simple or immaculate. And luckily for me, I realized that there were a lot more of those kinds of moments to draw from than there were Moments of Grace—which, of course, is what made the latter so rare and so remarkable. But the trickier, more nuanced moments are the ones from which we glean all of our best material.

I was recently talking to a friend who is in the middle of one of those, one of those moments of challenge and strangeness that we all go through from time to time. She was struggling to make the most of it, to try not to allow herself to slip into a state of total disillusion and discontent. An experience she had perhaps expected to swirl into some sort of montage of Moments of Grace had in fact become something far more complicated and at first glance less satisfying. Talking to her, I was reminded of a quote I had stumbled across in an old issue of Outside Magazine from an interview with Anderson Cooper. It had struck such a chord with me that I had decided to cut it out and save it, and was able then to share it with my friend in the hopes that it would help her as it had helped me. The interview addressed Anderson Cooper’s travels to Africa when he was younger, a trip during which he contracted malaria:

“You weren’t necessarily happy on that truck in Africa. But there is something deeply happy about those difficult experiences. People routinely say, “That was the greatest experience of my life.” It’s a strange alchemy, the way miserable things are turned into good memories.

When you are hospitalized with malaria, it’s not so great, but in retrospect, yeah, it was the greatest thing ever.

But if people haven’t had those experiences, they’re afraid. They think, This is going to suck.

It’s OK if it sucks. Of course it’s going to suck at times. But it’s also going to be exhilarating and invigorating, and it’s going to quicken your pulse in a way it’s never been quickened. And you know what? Not everything has to feel good. That’s sort of a revelation–at least it was for me. You should go through it. It should suck. It’s not all about enjoyment.”

And while perhaps what my friend was experiencing may not have been as dramatic as a bout with malaria in Africa, the principle of what Cooper is saying can be applied to almost any seemingly difficult or less-than-ideal situation. Often people only pay attention to the immediate experience of something, to what they are getting out of it moment by moment, and forget that sometimes what you can draw from the experience afterward is actually more important. My friend may not have been loving every single minute of what she was experiencing, but what we gain after going through moments like that is often more valuable in the long run than short-term enjoyment.

When I first arrived in Coquimbo, Chile the summer I was sixteen, I was immediately plunged into a moment that seemed about as far from grace as I could get. I had traveled many hours to a city that I had never been to before and where I knew no one. I had been banking on the fact that being a year ahead in Spanish classes back in my high school would put me in an optimal position for communicating with my host family and my classmates, but had been devastated to discover on my arrival that as far as classroom Spanish went, I really was not in Kansas anymore. It was as if I had been practicing reading Dr. Seuss and suddenly someone had thrown me headfirst into James Joyce, nodding all the while and saying, “Don’t worry, it’s the same basic idea!” Chilean Spanish was classroom Spanish chopped up, heavily laden with herbs and spices and blended at about a million miles an hour. What came out of other people’s mouths was something I barely recognized, let alone understood. Suddenly all of my confidence and preparation seemed to drop to the floor along with my uncomprehending jaw. For the first two weeks I struggled to communicate with my host family and my classmates at school, finding my jaw aching from smiling and my neck sore from nodding, but feeling as though I wasn’t actually making any progress. I was intimidated, isolated, and starting to let myself spiral into an unhappy place of resignation and defeat. The great thing though, about traveling to a country thousands of miles away from home for the summer is that you can’t just run back home when things get hard, you can’t just give up and get out, you have to keep waking up every morning, keep going to school, keep listening, keep talking, keep moving, and keep trying. I had no option but to grit my teeth against the frustration and push through it.

During my last week there, there was an end-of-program ceremony for all the exchange students in the area, and each of us had the opportunity to stand up in front of the group, made up of students and program staff and say something about our experience in Chile—in Spanish. Something that would have terrified me only six weeks before was suddenly an exciting opportunity to share everything that I had learned, and when I stood up to talk I did so with confidence and pride, and spoke clearly and with little hesitation. Afterwards I was sitting in the kitchen of my host family’s house having onces, the Chilean evening meal of tea and toast with avocado, and telling them about how I had gotten up to speak to a whole room of people in Spanish and how nervous I’d been about it at first, but how it hadn’t actually been that bad. I realized as I was telling them the story that it was all just coming out, easily, without me having to struggle or stumble over the words. And that moment, in itself, was my own little Moment of Grace.

What I realized after talking with my writing professor was that there is actually no such thing as a pure Moment of Grace, or at least not one that exists in isolation. Often Moments of Grace are actually products of prior struggle, of pushing and wrestling with and working through. To get to those Moments of Grace, to really be able to even have them at all, we have to go through the hard stuff, the trickier parts. Sitting in my room in my host family’s house those first few weeks in Chile was wildly unpleasant—I was terrified and crippled with feelings of inadequacy and just wanted the whole thing to be over as quickly as possible. But the challenge and complicated nature of that moment forced me to push on, to struggle through, to dig deep. It is in the moments of difficulty that we realize what we are truly capable of.

My fellow graduates of the class of 2012 and I may soon find ourselves in moments of difficulty. We will be starting new jobs, moving new places, making new friends, taking on new responsibilities, reaching new levels of independence, and it is safe to say that within all of that the Moments of Grace may be few and far between. We may start to long for what we had before, for that easy comfort of an established community, for the soothing rhythm of routine, for the safe comfort of familiarity. But the best thing we can do to brace ourselves for what lies ahead is to not forget that there is so much value in experiencing things that scare us, that intimidate us, that make us nervous. There is so much merit in going through moments that aren’t pleasant or easy or particularly magnificent. It is hard to see that in the thick of things, but it is essential to getting us through it.  The Moments of Grace will be there, but they will almost certainly be hard-won.

“You get nothing from being comfortable,” I wrote in another essay for my writing sequence. My professor underlined it twice and scribbled in the margin: You know it. Now internalize it.

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