On one of my long walks during the pandemic, I wound up at a high school’s athletic complex a couple of miles from my house. In addition to the football stadium and baseball field, it has a nice walking loop with various exercise stations. On a whim, I stopped at one to do a few pull-ups, which I could easily do as a kid.
I jumped for the bar a few inches above my upstretched arms and hung for several seconds to stop the sway. I adjusted my grip, took a breath, and pulled. I expected to struggle a bit, of course—after all, I’m a 64-year-old woman who hasn’t done a pull-up in probably 50 years. I figured my form would be off, but who cares.
I pulled and pulled and really exerted myself and I got … nothing. No movement at all! My 115 pounds hung inert and didn’t move a vertical half-inch.
I admit I was shocked. I was a super active tomboy as a child and effortlessly kept up with my brothers and the neighborhood boys. As an adult who will qualify for Medicare in 2021, I consider myself unusually fit for a woman my age. Hiking has made me feel better than I have in 30 years: strong and capable and vigorous. I normally walk 10,000—15,000 steps daily, and I can easily hike the local trails that are labeled “strenuous.”
As I hung from the pull-up bar, though, my self-image as this physically fit woman ran in rivulets down the dead weight of my arms and legs. I looked around embarrassed. How in the world am I unable to do a simple pull-up? I can do push-ups and plank and lift my legs and arms and hold them inches off the floor while lying on my back (not too long, but I can do it). Really? And I can’t do a pull-up?
After a minute or two, I decided there must have been some mistake and tried again. Same result: nada, not one bit of lift. Wow. So it wasn’t a fluke. Geez!
For whatever reason, I decided that doing pull-ups was my next personal goal. I found several tutorials about “getting your first pull-up,” all illustrated, of course, by very buff young women and men who looked like they could easily lift an elephant. Many of them described beginning steps I could already do, like hanging on the bar, so I moved to the arm and back strengthening exercises.
After a week, I still couldn’t do a pull-up so I took a deep breath and the next brave step: I confessed the weakness to a good friend and to my son. Both are active, very fit men who work out regularly and have the muscles to show for it. And both had the same immediate reaction: “Oh, pull-ups are really hard! Especially for a female.”
That affirmation from those sources felt affirming and full of grace. My son offered it as he casually grabbed the monkey bars and did a quick half-dozen, since I had made my confession while we were with his toddler daughter at a playground. Surprisingly, the immediate declaration from two men in great physical condition about the difficulty of doing pull-ups also fueled an obsession: I’m going to be the 64-year-old female who is able to do ten pull-ups. I thought of a line made popular in the book Untamed by Glennon Doyle: “We can do hard things!”
I’ve never been one to work out in the traditional sense of calisthenics or weights. But in pursuit of my goal, I’ve bought two different types of exercise bands and asked for heavier hand weights for Christmas. I’ve watched tons of videos and am working hard to build my upper body strength. Who knew that pull-ups required more back strength than arm strength?
Every time I do an exercise, attempt a pull-up, or even think about either, I remind myself, You can do hard things. I know that’s true as I have done or endured many tough things in my life, but they’ve involved issues more emotional and spiritual, not physical. This pull-up challenge stretches and humbles me.
As I work out, I think about the many meanings inherent for me in Doyle’s insistent declaration: all the hard things people were called upon to do in the shocking year that was 2020. All the hard things we likely will face in 2021. The hard things of life and health and relationships and work and self and God.
You have your own list of hard things, as I have mine. The list gnaws in the back of your heart inviting attention if you will listen to it. Or some hard things appear seemingly out of nowhere, like surviving a pandemic or coping with the loss of those people and things that didn’t survive.
As we start this new year, which is as uncertain as any year before or after, I invite you to hold onto this encouragement: We can do hard things! Doing hard things may mean only surviving them, and that achievement is no small feat.
On January 1st, the morning of a new year, I went to the athletic field with the exercise stations. I still can’t do a full pull-up, but I’m closer than when I started this process many weeks ago. And with each attempt, I remind myself that I can do hard things.
You can, too.
Marnie C. Ferree