Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.
– Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1948), Young India, August 11, 1920
When we are strong, we are always much greater than the things that happen to us.
– Thomas Merton (1915–1968), No Man Is an Island, 1955
Great people have stood on the world stage throughout history. Many have remained noteworthy; others are forgotten. What is it that makes one remembered? It is through their strength or weakness of character that impacts their life situation and the lives of those around them. A good example of this is the strength of Jesus and the weakness of his betrayer, Judas.
Yet most of us lead our ordinary lives, not realizing or recognizing the strengths we possess until a misfortune occurs. When we have good health, we take it for granted. When serious illness strikes, we are faced with a choice: succumb or overcome. Initially, it may be overwhelming when a difficulty arises. Some peoples’ first reaction may be to withdraw into themselves. Others find the courage to endure and overcome the stumbling block life has put in their path.
Strength of character can come at any age. Children born with physical limitations or deformities can be taught ways to cope with these challenges and lead productive lives. Recently on television, a man who was born without arms or legs was interviewed after receiving an award. His parents believed that his lack of arms and legs should not define who he was or what he could do. Today he uses in a wheelchair that is adapted for his needs. For 13 years he has worked as an athletic coach in a school. His positive attitude began in his childhood and continues to the present.
Children diagnosed with cancer show incredible bravery when they endure difficult treatments and the effects of chemotherapy. Professional caregivers in hospitals create environments that are geared toward children, with cheerful wall colors, toys, and art materials. Parents, family members, and friends are given the opportunity to be present to provide comfort. A neighbor told me about his 13-year-old nephew who lives with his family at home. He has terminal cancer. His friends visit him after school. His parents welcome the enthusiasm and companionship his friends provide. For a young man, he displays incredible courage as he faces a devastating illness.
Serious accidents or combat wounds can change lives in an instant. Suddenly a person faces an unknown path ahead, often in severe pain and with bodily injuries. It is in these situations that strength or weakness of character will be demonstrated. After the initial shock is over, the resilient person will adjust and adapt to the changes in their lifestyle. Unfortunately, others will become bitter and depressed. With good care and encouragement, some will overcome their bitterness; others never do.
There are many stories of challenges that wounded warriors deal with as they adjust to civilian life. Many have lost limbs or some other bodily function. Others suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The bravery displayed in adjusting to their difficulties when they return home is often equal to, if not greater than, the bravery they displayed on the battlefield.
There are many people who show great strength in the face of adversity in my local parish. One married couple is a prime example. They have six children. Their son suffered a stroke when he was 20 years old. They took care of him, nursing him back to health and providing a loving atmosphere. One of their daughters and her husband both died of drug overdoses, leaving behind a 13-year-old son. Both members of this couple were in their 60s when they took their grandson into their home and raised him to become a fine young man. When an elderly relative was diagnosed with dementia, they provided her a bedroom and gave her love and support in her final days.
After Mass, when people see this couple and ask them how they are, their smiling reply is always “Fine.” They have accepted the challenges that life has sent them. Their strong faith and love for each other and their family gives them the resilience they need to deal with difficult situations as well as find joy in their lives.
Where does the strength of human spirit come from? The answer is simple: God who created us gave us many gifts to help us through our journey of this life. Our strength comes from the all-powerful God who carries us in his loving arms as we navigate the stormy waters of our earthly life. As the prophet Habakkuk said: “God, the Lord, is my strength.”
Margaret McGullam is a retired registered nurse, mother of four, and grandmother of eleven. At her parish, St. John Nepomucene Church in Bohemia, New York, she has been a retreat team leader for 26 years.