No Grit, No Pearl: The Importance of Letting Your Struggles Define You

You are triumphing. Let people see the victor.

Meaghan Denniston

University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2023

A single pearl can cost anywhere from $20 to $5,000. Pearls are viewed as a physical representation of the wearer’s purity, integrity, and self-control. Seen as king’s jewelry, these stones represent wealth and power. But do you know how pearls are formed? They start as an irritant – a random particle or a parasite – that invades an oyster. To protect itself, the oyster covers the irritant with alternating layers of aragonite and conchiolin. This combination forms a composite called nacre, more commonly known as mother-of-pearl. The result is a smooth, unbreakable, semi-iridescent object that has a global market exceeding $16 billion. All from a defensive mechanism to an irritant.

In contrast to this natural phenomenon, society holds the view that a person’s past – their struggles, their hurdles, their mistakes – should be hidden away. “Do not let your past actions or circumstances define you,” is common advice. But what if that advice is wrong? Maybe your past does define you. The mistakes you have made should not necessarily be excluded from what you reveal to people you meet. You should be free to be as transparent as desired about any losses, struggles, shame, and vulnerabilities.

Webster’s Dictionary attaches the following meanings to the word “define”: (a) to identify the essential characteristics of . . . , (b) to fix or mark the limits of . . . , or (c) to distinguish. Society’s viewpoints on shame and struggle focus too much on the first two definitions and not enough on the third. Your past is a part of who you are. The person you are – sitting here reading this – is a product of the strength, resilience, fortitude (and maybe a little luck) that it took to rise above your history, keep breathing, and keep going. That should be celebrated. You should be celebrated.

This is not a post about the need to share your story, widely or at all. Although many studies show sharing that your past can be therapeutic, this post is more about embracing the parts of you that allowed you to live through those moments and be present on the other side. Or maybe you are going through a moment right now, and this post represents a demonstration of support for you to keep trudging through, because there is more to you than shame, than fear, than disgust, than loss, than hate.

Let those difficult experiences shape the person you are today. Don’t let them determine who you are. Rather, learn to embrace those qualities that enabled you to survive. Don’t trivialize your struggles by comparing to those of others and deciding they are not “bad” enough to warrant your pride in the person you have become. And please don’t mute your challenges by attaching colloquialisms to them (such as “You are only given what you can handle”). Some struggles are fights that no human should ever have to endure.

But take heart in knowing that you have made it this far. And you are still breathing. And you can do this. You are doing this. You are overcoming. You are triumphing. Let people see the victor.

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