When the words “spine of steel,” are used to describe a person, they immediately conjure up images of an individual who is either very strong or unyielding or both. Other descriptors that come to mind include self-confident, tireless, passionate and committed.
The description of someone as having a “spine of steel” isn’t issued frivolously. Many times, the person using the words has come to deeply appreciate the qualities of the man or woman reinforced by steel. A business partner may have shown courage in the face of adversity. A fellow soldier may have displayed heroism even beyond the call of duty. A leader may have stood up for valued principles. A friend or loved one may have somehow summoned the will to help a family member through trying times, like economic collapse or physical illness.
Almost always, the person who comes to know a man or woman with a “spine of steel” only sees a bit of the evidence that justifies those words. Those with spines of steel don’t generally use them just once or only to help one person. What any one observer is lucky to experience is just “the tip of the iceberg.”
Those with a “spines of steel” not only love life, they are loving people. Their empathy is displayed through spontaneous actions of kindness, loyalty and by “showing up.”
A person cannot fake having a “spine of steel.” The attempt to pose will, in and of itself, expose the poser. That’s an essential element of the man or woman gifted with such a spine: It is their nature, their character, irrevocably—whether inborn or developed during life. They are authentic.
How does one develop a “spine of steel?” Often, it is by enduring painful experiences physically, financially, socially or in combat. Faith in God builds and reinforces the spine of steel immeasurably.
In seeking a spine of steel of one’s own it doesn’t hurt to work with, live with or be friends with someone who has one. That’s because the spine of steel can lay dormant until kindled by example.
Ronald Regan once said,”Uncle Sam was an old man with a spine of steel, but with a mind, soul, heart and conscience.
The following individuals whom I have met in my own practice of physical therapy exemplify faith, love, feelings of self-worth and purpose. They enjoy life to its fullest, with kindness and care for others. They had or have spines of steel:
A past Harvard University ice hockey team captain was informed the day before his law boards that he had a neurological disorder and that his brain had already started to deteriorate. He proceeded with a meaningful and successful life as a lawyer and an EPA regional director and enjoyed a family. He became a paraplegic sailing champion. Just before his death 46 years later, though completely paralyzed, his concern was for his caretaker’s knee, “Who would be best orthopedic surgeon to care for her?” he asked me.
Another example was a young girl with a progressive blood pressure syndrome who collapsed whenever she stood up. She graduated from the University of Chicago, walking around in a cage, the walls of her dorm room padded to avoid another fractured skull. She gave into using a wheelchair for graduate education. Now, recently married, she enjoys a successful tutoring business from her home.
I also recall a young girl who was bullied on the school bus in the 5th grade “for not having any bones.” She was courageous enough to say, “I have bones but no muscles.” In truth, her spine was structurally incomplete. Yet, she has traveled, married, enjoys two children and a private social work practice. She is loving, kind, always concerned about her friends, has a sense of humor, a sense of self and has faith.
It has been a privilege to meet inspiring people of this kind—people with spines of steel. Have you met one or more? Have you channeled their strength? Have you thanked them for it? Have you thanked God for them?
Kathi Fairbend MS RPT
Author, Physical Therapy and Ergonomic Consultation