I don’t know who said it first, “You can do hard things,” but I do know white girls around the world responded to it as if meeting Jesus for the first time. You will find the catchy phrase displayed in loop-de-loop calligraphy on fireplace mantels, spaced neatly on classic letterboards in small boutiques and hastily scrawled on post-it notes in office cubicles. And I have to admit, it’s an inspiring little mantra. Because we can do hard things. Human beings are wired for struggle. We’ve been doing it since we fled out of Eden or shed our ape-like form, whichever beginning of man scenario floats your boat. The fact that we can do hard things has brought us electricity, skyscrapers, vaccines, and duct tape.
We, indeed, can do hard things. And we should. The letterboards aren’t wrong. But isn’t it interesting, though, that we equate “doing hard things” with action, with winning, even. We equate it with standing up to the bully, conquering that marathon, fighting the cancer, gritting our teeth and pummeling the punching bag Rocky-style. We create little movie montages set to upbeat soundtracks in our minds as we do that hard thing. Because doing the hard thing, is DOING. It is action. It feels powerful. Even if we fail, we still did something. We did the hard thing. We did the right thing.
What happens when doing the hard thing, the right thing, feels a lot like giving up? What happens when you can’t back down the bully? When you twist an ankle and the marathon becomes an improbability? When you fight your hardest and the cancer still wins? What happens when the hard thing, the right thing, is to walk away?
I experienced this recently. I had to walk away from something I had grown to love. As much as I loved it, there was a tiny toxin embedded deep that was slowly ebbing away my emotional health. I did all the traditional hard things. I doubled down on therapy. I faced some demons head-on. I had some hard conversations and faced some hard truths about myself. I did all of the work I was supposed to. I was an ode to “hard things”. And yet, it wasn’t enough. I wasn’t getting any better. I was getting worse, in fact. And then I faced the hardest of hard things: I had to walk away. For my Enneagram One heart, which is always deadset on living in the reality of hard things and blasting them to the moon, this was a devastating realization.
It felt like (still feels like) such a failure. It feels like giving up or giving in. It feels like I should have done more, worked harder, been stronger. My movie montage didn’t end in the kind of victory I wanted. It didn’t end with hugs and cheers. There was no ticker-tape parade or high fives. It ended with a resigned sigh and a white flag. But here is the reality I tell myself each time my inner critic wants to tell me I failed:
The victory was in walking away.
The victory was found in choosing my own emotional health rather than digging deep one more time into a well that was already dry. The victory was in admitting I had done all the hard things and had tried my best and my best was good enough. Because my best culminated in putting down my sword and walking away.
Sometimes doing the hard thing is fighting. Sometimes it is sticking it out, seeing it through and digging deep. And sometimes doing the hard thing also means knowing when enough is enough.
We can do hard things. The letterboard at my local Anthropologie says so. There is vcitory to be found in those hard things, even if the victory is in a small sigh with a white flag.