Mary Schmich: Pick a guiding word for 2021. Mine is ‘endurance’

Endurance.

The word popped into my brain near the end of December, sooner than I’d usually start searching for a word to guide the coming year.

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Why, out of the blue, was that word blazing in my mind like a neon sign? For about three seconds, I pondered the question and then I knew: This was the word I needed for 2021.

For the past eight years, I’ve enjoyed picking a word for the new year, originally inspired by a Tribune reader who wrote to tell me about her guiding word habit. Each January since then, I’ve written a column about my word and heard from many Tribune readers about theirs.

They’ve written about why they chose “restore” or “clean” or “patience” or “focus.” One woman sent a photo showing that she’d reinforced her new year’s intention with a framed needlepoint of “appreciate.” One of my favorite choices was from a woman who said she had picked “tomorrow” because at the age of 85 she was looking forward more than ever to her tomorrows.

A guiding word isn’t a resolution. It’s gentler. It’s more like a friend standing by the side of the road with a map, saying: When you get lost, think of me and I’ll help you get back on track.

But in a world chockablock with good words, which one to choose? The choice can be hard, and I usually spend a few days sorting through the possibilities.

One year I chose “pause,” as in stop for a moment, take a breath, think this over before you speak or act. Another year I chose “shed,” as in get rid of the junk, mental and physical, cluttering your life. Once I chose “help,” as in try to help other people, which is also a way to help yourself.

Last year, I chose “slow,” which turned out to be more suited to 2020 than I’d dreamed. I picked it as a reminder not to race through life, whether I was in the car or in the kitchen. Then the pandemic arrived to slow us all down, in ways we’d never imagined, whether we wanted to slow down or not.

Any of those words would be useful in 2021. But “endurance” popped into my brain so forcefully I decided to look no further. I did, however, look it up, and found this definition in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary:

the ability to withstand hardship or adversity

especially: the ability to sustain a prolonged stressful effort or activity

I liked that definition but also the slightly simpler version designated “for English language learners”:

the ability to do something difficult for a long time

the ability to deal with pain or suffering that continues for a long time

We often associate endurance with athletic feats — the endurance required to run a marathon or climb a mountain or hold an abdominal plank for three minutes.

Often, as the definitions suggest, we associate the word with emotional pain. We endure wars, insults, the deaths of people we love.

According to the definition, endurance is an ability, and it’s useful to acknowledge that we never have full control over our abilities. But we can develop our abilities, and endurance is, in some measure, a function of training. That’s where the word comes in handy.

A guiding word is your personal trainer, a word that fortifies your will when you’re feeling weak. So my plan for 2021 is to say “endurance” when I feel my will fail, whether it involves the pandemic or my job or that abdominal plank, always keeping in mind that endurance, like so much else, is sometimes fortified by failure.

When we endure, we hang on, we make it through, we keep going. Keep going when it hurts. Keep going when it’s hard. Keep going when the way is long and the end is hard to imagine.

As extra encouragement, I’ll try to remember John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “Don’t Quit” (also commonly attributed to Edgar Guest). Here are a few lines:

When the funds are low and the debts are high

And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,

When care is pressing you down a bit,

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Rest if you must, but don’t you quit.

Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.