Before I begin, let me ask you a question: What is strength? How would you define it? And would you consider strength to be one of your many attributes?
Got your answer? Good.
At a recent event, I was asked to describe myself using an adjective (how utterly joyful!)“I am strong,” I blurted out with whatever residual confidence I had left from having to say my name out loud (Sigh! Introvert problems.) I was met with skepticism. “Really?” One had the audacity to ask. “You don’t look it.”
What my very observant friend failed to realize was that I didn’t have to.
Our notion of strength has been confined to warriors, knights, burly men with handlebar mustaches, martial artists, gun wielding acrobats and/or secret agents, which is why we refuse to believe that strength could very well take any other form. It is but normal to think that only those people in powerful positions, high risk jobs or high pressure situations could ever possess or display strength. After all, strong isn’t the first word you would use to describe your neighbor, teacher or bus driver. Strength is often portrayed in works of fiction as a surge of positive emotion, filling a person with indomitable purpose and propelling them forward towards glory and certain success. If only.
Truth be told, it is a bit skewed from how humans and human emotions really work. Perhaps it is time we interpret ‘strength’ in a more practical light. For the greater good, of course.
Strength does not only mean physical strength.
I learned two things from the numerous movies/TV shows/anime that I’ve watched over the years:
1) My eyes can only take so much strain, and
2) If you’re a main character¹ you must be able to wield a weapon/engage in hand to hand combat at a moment’s notice/brush off any injury as a ‘flesh wound’ (“Pain isn’t in my vocabulary!”) The protagonist almost always starts out as a weak, scrappy young character who matures into a bold, respectable individual as a result of some hardcore training (what better way to depict the inner struggles of man than through a two-minute long montage to the backdrop of an 80s rock song?) or a life-altering incident (death of a loved one, war, rejection, asteroid collision or all of the above) which persuades the protagonist to beef up and get serious. For the longest time, strength was considered to be directly proportional to one’s size (Do you even lift, bro?) although I must admit that the ideology seems to be changing, albeit at an excruciatingly slow pace.
Bottom line: strength is not an exclusive trait of the fittest or the fastest or the one exercising the right to bear arms.
Strength is gender neutral.
I’ll say it once more for the people in the back: strength is neither a masculine nor a feminine quality. Lately, many fictional works have diversified their approach but it seems to be taking a little longer for the same to be accepted in reality. I’m looking at those parents who instruct their boys not to cry because they’re expected to never show any weakness and those who tell girls that they can’t become plumbers/mechanics/firefighters/soldiers because they require physical exertion. You do you.
Strength is relative.
Here’s a lesson that took me a little longer than necessary to learn: Do not compare your battles to another’s. Your struggles are exclusively your own. Every fight requires a different degree of strength. So the next time someone says that a homemaker’s job is the toughest in the world, take it at face value. Don’t get into a debate about housework being easy and effortless. (Trust me that is not an argument you want to win.)
Strength is not the outcome of a struggle; it is a catalyst for growth.
Some believe strength to be the end result of a long struggle. “The protagonist overcame his weakness, therefore he is strong.” “He mastered Tai Jutsu, therefore he is strong.” That’s not exactly true. Strength is not the XP you get for slaying the boss monster, it’s the weapon to use to slay said monster. Or the coins you use to buy that weapon. You get my point.
Strength varies over time.
It is not constant. Every new challenge will demand a new you. It is only human to fluctuate, falter, fall and fail. It is purely circumstantial. It is perfectly normal to lose one’s bearings even in the most familiar of situations. What might have been an easy conquest once might not be so at a later stage. Strength, in such situations, is asking for help.
Strength is not always a positive action.
Anyone who has had to put up with an annoying boss or over-friendly relative would agree that sometimes it is better to not say or do anything at all. Which is why I think that Neville Longbottom was one of the (if not the) strongest characters in Harry Potter. (For those who don’t know, Neville’s greatest fear was Professor Snape but that didn’t stop him from being a dutiful student.)
If courage is not the absence of fear then strength is not the absence of weakness. Contrary to popular opinion, it is entirely possible to be strong despite having many weaknesses. Strength, like courage, is a choice. It is not a physical state or an inborn ability. It is the decision to face adversity and whatever else that may accompany it, even when your first instinct is to run and hide. It is the ability to walk through fire with your head held high. Strength is going back to school knowing that the bullies would still be there. It is waking up every morning to a world that is self-destructive. It is coming face to face with the hatred, bigotry, racism, sexism, homophobia, misogyny and still believing in a better future. Strength is simply the ability to stand up even when every fiber of your being is screaming at you to stay down.
Now would you answer my earlier question in the affirmative? After all, you have a very impressive 100% survival rate. What is that, but strength?
¹All rules have exceptions.