The Language of Struggle

Language. We don’t often think about the words we use and the messages we send. Yet it is something we inherently know and do every day. We communicate with people using words, but communication or language is not just using words.
We use body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Language is something we understand, even if it is difficult to explain. Words mean things. Sometimes language can paint a picture, or express an emotion. Language can provide a window to our thoughts. Can language portray how we really feel?
Language is something that we can feel confident about until we get into a fight with a loved one. We think we make sense. We think people understand us. And then out of nowhere, we feel frustrated, flustered, hurt, for being misunderstood.
Language is not only the words we say out loud, but the words we think in our minds. The messages we tell ourselves to deal with the struggles we face.
My Canoeing Challenge – A Story
I found myself in the nose of a Coleman canoe, paddling a week’s worth of gear in hopefully waterproof garbage bags. We had begun the first part of a weeklong high adventure trip in Idaho. Half a dozen fourteen and fifteen-year-old boys and a few scoutmasters maneuvering the river from one point to another, pitching tents on the bank of the river. It was exciting and scary. A challenge that men accomplish. Something to tell my future grandchildren about as we sit by a campfire.
Each person had to prove that they were capable of participating in this adventure. I was a confident swimmer. But swamping a canoe, lifting it to dump water, and turning it upright is a solid challenge for any young man. Especially in the chilly, early summer snowmelt river. We proved we could do it, which put everyone in high spirits. Now we each hoped that we wouldn’t have to repeat that terrible process, potentially losing, or at the very least, soaking our clothes and gear.
We set out, enjoying the sunny morning, keeping our eyes open for eagles in the sky. I was paired with an adult by the name of Bart. He was a kind and encouraging leader, though he wasn’t afraid to keep us in line when we needed it. We made it for several miles without a problem. It looked as if we would make it through the day without incident. The river split into a fork. All of the canoes in our group floated to the left. Bart and I steered to the right hoping to stay in deep, moving water. We weren’t that lucky. We tried looking ahead, hoping to avoid logs or rocks close to the surface but with the sparkle of the sun on the water, we failed to float through a clear path. The bottom of the red plastic canoe scraped slowly against the bottom of the river until we stopped.
We were high-centered in water deep enough to potentially tip the canoe over if we attempted to get out. We tried to shift our weight and push with our oars, knowing if we broke the blade of the paddle the rest of the trip would be difficult. I had never really experienced such a difficult situation before this. I could see Bart getting frustrated. I was trying everything that I could without much effect. He was trying to be encouraging without being too mean. I didn’t want to be seen as weak. I didn’t want to tip the canoe. I didn’t want Bart to think I wasn’t trying. I didn’t know what I could do. I didn’t feel strong enough to move the canoe. We were stuck.
Bart didn’t take my reasons or excuses or anything else I said. He became a coach, aggressive and encouraging. He said things like, “We can do this!” and, “Pull that oar like your life depends on it!”
I tried to lean into it, pulling the oar through what seemed like inches of water. I didn’t think we would get out of this unless one of us got out to lift and push the canoe. Bart might have. It was a serious struggle. I didn’t like being stuck there in the middle of a river. I didn’t like being thought of as weak. I didn’t like worrying about whether we would tip over and get all of our gear wet.
We made it through. I was sore and embarrassed, but we caught up with the others in our group. It was a struggle and one that I will never forget. It helps me to remember that it is okay to struggle. It helps me to see kids, young people, my students, struggle and reminds me that they are not broken. They have not failed. They are simply struggling and haven’t figured out how to get through whatever it is that they are dealing with.
What About You?
Does anyone really like to struggle? It is frustrating, but it is a part of life. It is something that everyone experiences, regardless of age, status, nationality, and gender. At one time or another, all of us have tried to do something and failed, or at least not been successful the first time. What keeps us from quitting?
When our babies first try to walk, and fall, we think it’s cute. We smile, lift them up, and encourage them to try again. However, shortly after we become proficient walkers we start to get frustrated when we try to do something and get stuck. We think there is something wrong with us when we try to read new words, can’t get it, feel stupid, and quit.
Struggling isn’t fun. Nobody really wants to struggle. We might accept it, and learn from it, but it is a challenge and takes time for a person to change their attitude or perspective, or accept that it might just be time to grow in some unknown way.
But what is worse? Struggling when we have support all around us, at school or at home when it is manageable to some extent. What happens when we are expected to struggle and live with other people who struggle? Shouldn’t we have some confidence in our ability to struggle?
Shouldn’t we understand that struggle is a part of the process? If we are struggling, we are learning and growing. We are finding out what we are capable of. We start to learn that we can do hard things, even if it isn’t fun. We can do things and survive, and hopefully in some instances, thrive.
What are you capable of? Have you given yourself time to get there? Don’t give up! Keep trying. Find a new way to think about the problem.
Who has inspired you to not give up? How have you overcome a challenge?
Who can you inspire? Who is struggling that needs to hear your encouragement?

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