The movie Marshall is based on the true story of Thurgood Marshall, who became the first African-American Supreme Court judge, it depicts the court room drama of an African-American man accused of the rape and attempted murder of a high society white woman in the 1940s.

There are many aspects of this movie that deserve attention but one that struck me was how Marshall pulled a reluctant Jewish lawyer, Samuel Freidman, through the difficulties of this fraught and even dangerous trial because Friedman had to represent the client as the local counsel. Friedman was not a criminal lawyer but rather defended insurance cases. He was not an activist for black Americans and he believed that Joseph Spell, the defendant, was guilty.

Yet, he rose to the occasion. Marshall never blinked and he never entertained anything but the best from Friedman. He coached and taught Friedman so that he represented Spell with excellence. He also pushed through and over-rode any of Friedman’s objections. He stood his ground, held an unwavering belief in the cause, and galvanized the same from Friedman.

As the movie demonstrated this transformation of a man who had no idea what was within him, fulfill a role and a place in history that he would never have known he could, it made me ask a question that has often revolved in my mind. What are we capable of?

The Death Crawl

This question takes me back to another movie Facing the Giants (yes, I do love watching movies!) It’s an American high school football movie — you already know the story line! But there is a compelling scene in that movie called the ‘death crawl’. The coach asks one of the ring-leaders, Brock, if he has really given of his best and then asks him to prove it.

The death crawl is an exercise where you have to crawl on all fours with your knees off the ground, with someone on your back. For this particular exercise the coach blind-folds Brock so that his best is not limited by how far he has already gone and his expectations of what he thinks he can do.

Brock sets off. The movie does not show the distance he is crawling but he keeps going until it really starts getting hard. He begins grunting and shouting out, “It hurts”, “It hurts” and the further he keeps going he groans “It’s hard”. The coach who’s been encouraging him all along now shouts back, not in a bullying, demeaning way but encouraging and urging him. He bellows at him, “Do your best”, “Give me more”, “Keep going”, “Don’t quit”. He’s shouts this out over and over again, face to face with Brock as he drives him forward. In the end Brock collapses, utterly finished, on the end zone. Before this he had death crawled 20 metres. He had now death crawled the entire length of the football field.

Coaches and Life Do Not Let Up

When I watched this I was struck not just by Brock’s achievement and his recognition that he was capable of far more than he imagined, but by how hard the coach had been on him. I know for myself I would not have put someone through something so grueling and painful and would have let off the pressure long before.

Marshall and this football coach did no such thing. They kept the intensity of the pressure on until the very best performance this person was capable of shone through.

To be such a leader, to be such a coach, is something I wonder if I can achieve.

To have such coaches in our lives, who believe in us to such an extent that they draw the very best out of us is a tremendous privilege. But even if you don’t life will do this for you anyway.

Life throws an array of struggles and problems our way. It could be health problems — yours or close family members. Someone close to you dies — too soon. Someone close to you betrays you, lies to you, lies to others about you. You have financial difficulties, losses and downturns. You are overloaded with work and demands on your time and energy, pushed and pulled in a multitude of different directions. You are exhausted just from life’s daily grind .

I have seen people go through some of these things and some have had them all happen, sometimes one on top of the other. Life is not fair. It does not let up.

But I have also seen people push through and find resolve to keep going. It has definitely not been easy. In fact, in my own experience it is pretty ugly. You see aspects of yourself you don’t like. The circumstances appear overwhelming and you wonder how you will make it through, especially as you can’t see the end of the line.

You Are Capable

But you find yourself doing what you thought was impossible. Caring for that sick person, changing direction because the door came crashing down, rebuilding once again, forgiving, trusting, loving.

Life’s battles expose our vulnerabilities leaving us weak and often broken. But they also reveal vast reserves of determination, untapped ability and a core of resilience. When the one battle ends (and it always does), we can look back with pride — we overcame, we survived. More than that, we have been shaped anew. We find greater capacity for compassion, empathy and tolerance. An inner capacity has been expanded and it can never be reduced.

We have been as weak and as vulnerable as we could ever have thought was possible and yet have found a strength and ability to endure that we now carry onward. Our belief about what we thought we were capable of is forever altered.