Cut Your Bootstraps

I have a few pet peeves.  I’m insulted when I’m waiting for an elevator and someone moves in front of me to push the button (like I’d be waiting without already having pushed it). I want to smack people’s hands when they bite their nails. I cringe when my Chicago friends end their sentences with “with” (e.g. “I’m going to the store. Wanna go with?”)  And I find it terribly annoying when people assume I don’t know how to spell my own name by insisting on calling me Suzanne.

These pet peeves, over time, I’ve gotten used to. But in recent months I’ve added one to the list that puts my spiritual self into a theological frenzie. It’s this phrase: “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” I suppose it’s okay if you’re in the middle of a workout and you want to whimp out, or if you’re prepping for a big work presentation and you decide to reach for the remote. I suppose there are some circumstances where we need to grit our teeth, get over our inhibitions and, as my friend Tracey likes to say, put your big girl panties on.

But when it comes to matters of the heart, intense emotional or physical pain, our culture is all to quick to say, “C’mon, pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”  In other words, get over it. Don’t grieve. Don’t wallow. Don’t lament. Pull yourself together and move on. Other people’s pain makes us uncomfortable. We’re not sure how to react when it doesn’t last for a length of time that we (as outsiders) consider normal. Americans’ barometer for healthy living is happiness so when people aren’t happy, we start to squirm. We think maybe it’s time they should tug on their bootstraps.

The saying dates back to the 1800s and is believed to have been derived from the act of slipping your fingers through a loop that was affixed to the top of tall leather work boots. It wasn’t a means of simply pulling a little harder to get your boots on, but it meant to actually pull forcefully enough to lift yourself off the ground. Ironically, it was an impossible task.  An impossible task we tell people to do all the time. By definition, we’re telling them to get out of a difficult situation by their own efforts. To engage in a self-sustaining process without any external help.

As someone who believes there’s a healing power that only comes through Jesus and the community he has chosen to surround us by, I think those seven words are about the dumbest I’ve ever heard.

I’ve been thinking about them in light of 9/11. How many well-meaning people told the family and friends of people who lost their spouse, their sister, their child, their friend that maybe it was time to move on. I’ve been thinking about them in light of some friends of friends who lost their eight-month-old baby in utero. I’ve been thinking about them in light of my 93-year-old grandmother who, in the span of two months, has sold her house, most of her belongings and has been diganosed with terminal cancer. I’ve been thinking about them in light of my daughter, who a few days ago threw herself in a heap on the bathroom floor. I told her to get up. To stop acting so ridiculous. To pull herself together. Until I finally had the sense to sit on the floor, wrap my arms around her and listen to what was going on inside of her heart.

If you’ve ever been in those dark moments, you get it. You know that pulling yourself up by your bootstraps really is impossible. In fact, I’d argue it only makes things worse. I wish we’d just cut the darn things.

I had a friend that used to write music. I don’t know, maybe he still does, but when we’d go listen to him play, he’d dedicate this one song to me because of a line it in that I loved: “Look at yourself and figure out how many pieces of a heart can be picked up on in a sheet music piece of art.” In seemingly impossible situations, I think this is a more accurate representation of what God asks us to do. Not to pull ourselves up in an effort to move past the pain as quickly as possible, but to take the broken pieces, offer them to him and to people who love us for as many times and for as long as it takes. Not just to make the pain go away, but to be healed from it in a way that transforms who we are. Maybe even in a way that creates a sheet music piece of art.


4 thoughts on “Cut Your Bootstraps

  1. Nice, Suanne. As a young widow and someone who has suffered the devasting effects of bi-polar disorder, I certainly have heard my share of “pull yourself up by the bootstrap” comments through the years. Thanks for educating the community on how hurtful those comments can be.


  2. Simply wonderful Suanne.

    When my mother passed away I’m glad my friends didn’t try to hurry me into “getting over it.” They just showed up and were there to support me. They never tried to push me into a fake happiness that could have done more harm than actually healing.

    You’re right, deep pain is not that simple to extinguish. It takes time. Time heals all wounds isn’t just a saying, it’s true to our very natures.


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