A new definition of tough

Published 9:49 am Friday, August 3, 2018

by Charles Qualls

Lately, I have a new understanding of tough.

You’d have to know that my Dad grew up in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Times were hard. These children of the Depression toughened up early in life or things could be worse than they already were. Add in a world war, the Korean Conflict and the peril of Cold War fears. I think a lot of people grew up in a hurry back then because they had to.

Perhaps in a reflection of the times, the movies they watched often depicted tough guys in action. Movies about police, gangsters, wars and heroic cowboys — these were the fare that seemed especially to sell tickets.

These images were formative for my Dad and his buddies in what were then the rural outskirts of Atlanta. They would dress like James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart. They raced cars. They worked hard and played hard. If you had a problem with another man, you talked tough. If that didn’t work, you fought it out.

At least that’s what I was told. He emerged into his adult life with a lofty view of the tough guy.

As I have lived, I have considered that “tough” comes in a lot more shapes and sizes than my Dad taught me.

I had to be awfully tough once. When I was 16, I had a head-on collision. It was 1982 and I was not wearing a seatbelt. My head hit the windshield, my hand caught in the steering wheel. My legs hit up under the dashboard. One helicopter flight later, I was a fortunate but busted up guy. Among my issues, there were 32 stitches mostly to my face and right knee. I had separations in three of the four shoulder and clavicle joints. Worst of all, my left ring finger was completely broken and turned at a grotesque 90-degree angle. That I had a concussion was a medical understatement.

In that era, because of fear of a head injury, I was not given anything for the pain during the first 24 hours. Nothing. Right then, I had to develop the capacity to compartmentalize the pain and just seal it off mentally.

Since that time, because of reactions I can have to anesthesia, I have had two other surgeries and some wisdom teeth extracted all while awake. You learn a lot about how tough you can be.

To this day, I tend to manage pain and fear a little differently than some.

Other people are also tough right before us every day. As I write, a childhood friend of mine takes turns with his sister as together they care for their mother. They feed, dress and bathe her. Every day and night, one of them is by her side. They’ve done this for years. Not everyone could. Not everyone would choose to. What they are doing is loving, but it’s also tough.

One of Franklin Baptist’s native sons died recently. Turns out, his own brother is a pastor down in North Carolina. Understandably, if able he was the pick to officiate the funeral. As he conducted the service, I marveled at what I saw and heard.

Somehow, this man was able to manage his emotions such that his own grief was not a distraction. 

In my mind, I knew that I was seeing a tough, gutsy act there in a funeral home chapel. Indeed, one of the toughest performances I have ever beheld.

A few couples we know have worked to keep marriages together after adultery. The pain and dysfunction in their relationships was acute. To this point, years later in each case, they are still working and are still together. They have fought for their relationships because they believed there was something worth reclaiming. They’ve had to be awfully tough to work that hard.

Tough is the widowed young mother who is raising her kids alone.

Tough is the husband sitting by his wife’s bedside for a decade because of her slow trip into dementia.

Tough are the parents whose children’s choices have given them reason to fear “that” phone call nearly every day of their lives. Tough is the cancer patient who fears a recurrence, but who is choosing daily to get on with life and put quality into their remaining days.

We have a lot to learn from each other, if we pay attention. Things that can inspire and instruct. Things that can also tender our hearts a bit, knowing the understated effort so many have to give while really being so tough.

DR. CHARLES QUALLS is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 562-5135.