I was a mere 20 years old when this phrase first came into my life. I was sure that I would be able to conquer the world in the following years. Alexander the Great took the throne at 20 years old. He led his men into battle at the center of the phalanx and soon I would too. The beauty of life is it has an amazing way of serving you a slice of humble pie just when you need it most. Pride goes before a great fall they say.
I was standing at the position of attention in my camouflage utilities with white name tapes stitched on them and a freshly shaved head. I could hear them before I could see them and it spiked my adrenaline. Something bad was coming and it would not go quietly. Every Marine Officer remembers “pick-up” day. The back door opened and a garbage can smashed across the freshly mopped and polished floor. Following that garbage can came four gigantic “Sergeant Instructors.” Gunnery Sergeants Butler, Hamilton, Skelton, and Rodriguez. This was about to be the most difficult 10 weeks of my life.
Gunnery Sergeant Butler was an interesting dude. He was covered in tattoos, uglier than sin, and he had braces. Which sucked for us because when he would scream at us his braces would rip his lips open and at the end of a dressing down he would have sprayed most of his blood across our faces. He would always tell us, “Y’all are gonna feel pain.” Then he would end his torture sessions by saying, “remember, through pain and suffering come spirit and discipline.”
It was like he was giving us a little morsel of sick, fucked up encouragement after he absolutely wrecked us every day. Yet those words had a profound impact on me and became a mantra I would repeat to myself and my fellow “candidates” very frequently. GySgt Butler admitted to us before we graduated that those words were the motto he lived his life by. He had them tattoo’d on his shoulder too, right next to his tattoo of the flag raising on Mt Suribachi in Iwo Jima. I’m pretty sure GySgt Butler tattoo’d those words on my soul.
The military teaches tons of slogans, mottos, and idioms to those who grace its ranks. Some are funny, some are idiotic, and they are all very well known. “This aint my hill to die on” and “The juice aint worth the squeeze on this one” or “two is one and one is none.” You don’t need to memorize them all or even go through the military to learn the worth of these mantras. I think this one though, the understanding of the benefit that exists within pain and suffering is something we all can relate to right now.
I don’t say this from a point of superiority. I say this like a guide taking you to the top of a mountain you have not gone up yet. These moments of quarantine, these moments of forced isolation, and facing adversity are an amazing lesson. No one on earth looks back and says, “remember when everything was easy?” “Remember how awesome it was when we had zero difficult obstacles to overcome?” No. No one says that, because we are human beings and we have evolved to adapt to and overcome the most difficult of situations.
It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.Charles Darwin 1809
Our entire society has been given an amazing gift. One that requires us to respond to outside circumstances in a way that builds spirit and discipline. It takes discipline to not be the one to sit around and eat their feelings during these times. It takes discipline to engage in a routine when everything tells you it’s ok to make excuses for yourself. You have to craft spirit in the deepest parts of your heart to keep those around you going when limited excitement exists. Spirit is what keeps us going through an experience that does not have an obvious end date. Spirit is why our people have persevered through far more difficult times than this. It is why we can and will persevere through this time.
A Person who can absorb pain and endure suffering is strong. The difference between people who lead us out of hard times and people who follow is that the leaders turn negatives into positives. They absorb, and their insides become stronger, they develop grit, they create spirit and discipline. They are stronger having been through such tough times. What’s more is they inspire those around them to do the same. These tough times are crafting our capabilities to respond and to be better for it.
John McCarthy is a Father, Son, Husband and former Marine Infantry Officer. He serves his local community and just wants to push people to be better humans. Check out the Tough Talk Podcast and other writings on this website to learn more.