I’ve always loved that word: Mettle.
It means this: A person’s ability to cope well with difficulties or to face a demanding situation in a spirited and resilient way.
I don’t think we use it enough. We toss around words like amazing, phenomenal, awesome to describe anything from a scientist or physician’s ability to discover life-changing/saving discoveries and medicines to a reality show star’s conversation or hairstyle. Their meanings have become as mundane and average as the latest YouTube sensation — here today, gone tomorrow, until the next one comes along. But for a moment, they’re all AMAZING, PHENOMENAL, AWESOME, PERFECT with plenty of omg’s and lol’s and lmao’s surrounding them. Sigh.
As a lover and writer of words, I try to use those adjectives sparingly. I want someone or something to earn their meaning. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Words have weight. They matter. And once they’re out there, they’re out there — no take backs, baby.
By the 18th century the word “mettle” (derived from the other one, “metal,” both being interchanged to mean that “hard, shiny substance” ) was being used to describe someone’s character, “the stuff we are made of.” It appeared in The Free Thinker in 1719 in this phrase: “I like the Lady’s Wit and Mettle.”
If someone described me that way, I’d be thrilled.
Proving Your Mettle
I come from humble beginnings, I suppose it was middle-class. But, most everyone around us was the same way. I don’t know how my parents were able to raise four children on their income. I’ve asked my mother that before and she always says the same thing: You just do what you have to do. You make the best of what you have until you can do better.
My parents were creative, artists of sorts, but they didn’t make money at being artists. My mother could make any kind of clothing, sometimes from cutting patterns out of newspaper. My father could make furniture, recover it, reuse it. Paint — not just the porch or house but paintings. They could fix things. Grow things. There wasn’t a plumber to call when something broke. It may not have worked perfectly, but it worked and we made it. Mettle.
When I think about all the accomplishments I’ve achieved in my life, those that mean the most are the ones that I worked my ass off to achieve, usually through not so great circumstances. But there’s something about doing that — working through adversities and reaching a goal despite all the odds. It feels good.
I don’t have any stories of walking uphill through twelve feet of snow. I was fed, sheltered, clothed. I was never hungry or cold, but I think my parents went through times I can’t imagine. They lived much more simply than they raised us.
My mother told me that when she and my father lived in Germany they lived in one room. Had to heat it with a coal stove. People had just a few items of clothing — everyday clothes and Sunday best. Maybe two pairs of shoes. She also said they were insanely happy. Strange how that works. Imagine not having so many choices; that must take some stress off of you.
I’m not saying I’d want to experience those kinds of times. The “good ole days” weren’t so good for women and minorities. But people survived through much more adversity and conditions/beginnings that we can fathom today.
Their mettle is what got them through. And we still see that today, people who overcome enormous adversity and achieve greatness. And the definition of “greatness” is different for everyone.
Every generation wants something better for the next one. My parents taught me what mettle meant. You have to earn respect. You have to work hard for what you want. No one gives it to you and life isn’t fair — it doesn’t owe you a thing. Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you. Life’s messy. It’s your mettle that gets you through the worst of it.
I wonder what we’re teaching the next generation.
Then and Now
The generation now has much to work through in order to prove their mettle as well and I believe most are doing a good job of it. They’re much more tolerant than past generations. I think they realize the enormity of what faces them. They’re coming up with new ways of learning and taking care of our planet. They care about what’s going on in the world instead of their own little bubble.
They have access to it — the world, more than we ever did. We are learning from them. I think there’s so much goodness and openness going on now than ever before. Hopefully, they’ll take a few cues from us as well, the previous generations — of what’s important and what’s not. It’s not all reality television and mindless, shallow thinking.
Despite all the doom and gloom we hear, we’re living better than before. Ask your parents or grandparents. I think most of us have it pretty good, probably better than our parents/grandparents did. We have the generation before us to thank for that. They proved their mettle and now we have to pass that on to the next generation.
If my legacy was “she had wit and mettle,” that would be a fine one indeed. Because mettle encapsulates a lot: integrity, strength, purpose, character and having a sense of humor through it all. Not taking yourself too seriously. To me, that’s success, amazing, great. If you think of all the great leaders, philosophers, scientists, physicians — those people who made our lives and world better — they had and have that. Those who have that mettle are the ones I look up to.
I’m not sure what sparked the idea for this post and although it may not be amazing or phenomenal, it’s not so bad.
I’ll take not so bad over nothing special any day. 🙂.
Happy Monday everyone.
Read more Monday Musings here.