As a child, it never occurred to me to be strong, only brave. At the time, bravery meant squinching up my eyes and getting through whatever it was quickly while simultaneously holding every adult around me responsible.
In my twenties, I just assumed I was strong. Obviously. I was young, I had many boyfriends and no cellulite. I was strong because I felt that every stumble was just a setback, and nothing in the world was really going to stop me from achieving my dreams. I was unstoppable. I lived in Europe.
But you know what did stop me? A baby. After creating a life, suddenly, like Newton’s falling apple, I realized with sickening clarity, how fragile we are. We are delicate creatures of need. We are emotional at the core and in the face of life’s biggest questions I understood finally, how little I knew and it was terrifying.
This year I turn 40. I am not old, but I am no longer truly young. I have been touched by enough tragedy and sadness that I don’t feel it inappropriate to share with you the ways that I got through those difficult times. I feel I should also admit to you that while I am not a religious woman, I do feel that the Universe is a guiding force and if, for some reason you have stumbled across this article in a moment where life has you reeling, I don’t believe you are reading this by accident.. In this small thing I hope you can find a moment of relief knowing that there is always a way through as long as you are open to looking for a path.
If you act like you don’t need any help and you have everything in hand, you cannot be surprised or disappointed when your friends and family respond accordingly. I was that person. I was “no crack in this armor” girl. I was “LOOK AT ME LYING IN THE BED I’VE MADE WITHOUT COMPLAINING” person. Let me tell you, I have never been so strong as when the weight of hardship brought me to my knees. Your true strength does not have its foundation in stoicism but rather in your vulnerability. When you are strong enough to ask for help, to admit that you can’t figure it out yourself, when you reach out and say I cannot do this alone, there will be more hands than you can imagine to help you and to pull you up.
Strength cannot be found in comparing yourselves to others. Every story is unique. I have in the past, found a rather shameful sense of pride when I sailed through a situation that had another person stumbling. I did feel strong when I thought about how well I coped compared to someone else. This is not real strength though, this is vanity. True strength lies in simply hearing and listening to that other person’s story without feeling the need to interject your own. You may have been exactly where that person has been (or close to it) but it’s not your advice that will prove this, but rather your questions. Being kind, being selfless, being of service, will fortify and strengthen you in a way that nothing else can.
You will fail. You will fail more times than you will succeed. The upside to this, and yes, there is an upside, is that failure has many more lessons to teach you than success. In the tiny nuclei of all of these failures is the DNA of your character and your resolve. These little nuggets will grow in time, over years, with perspective as long as you don’t dampen them down with blame and lack of ownership for your own part in the failure.
You will lose. You will lose face and you will lose things and terribly, you will lose people. More than anything else, loss chips away at our strength. All I can tell you, is that love is the only way to reclaim it. Love is the only thing that makes loss bearable. So even if your first instinct is to deprive yourself of it, for whatever reason, just the simple act of turning towards it may be enough in that excruciating moment to carry you through to the next breath.
Gratitude offers perspective, and perspective can offer the greatest of comforts. It’s never really the big things that seem to do the trick either. They say that God is in the details. I prefer to think that it’s solace and joy that’s in the details. The unfussy beauty of winter trees, the second or two the hummingbird hovers outside your window, a hot bath, a great song, the funny email from a friend, a good night’s sleep. Little things, recorded and remembered can offer so much strength in the face of sorrow.
Strength is not necessarily an active verb. You don’t always have to circle the wagons or fortify the troops. Sometimes, doing nothing at all, especially when you aren’t sure what to do, is the best way forward.
That being said, it most often seems like we need to be strong when we are in fact, feeling helpless. If you are worried that nothing is ever going to change, there is always something that can change, and that is you. You can prepare for whatever is coming next, good or bad, by working hard to become the best version of you there is. At best this can be annoying work, at worst, downright terrifying. It means making your body stronger by eating less junk food, getting more sleep and yes, working out. It also means eliminating the people in your life whom you know are unhealthy for you to be around, even if they are related to you. It means trying new things that others may think are lame or silly but it also means letting go of bad habits, or at least attempting to. All the people I’ve met whose strength I really admired weren’t amazing super-powered heroes. They were just ordinary people who were wise enough to know what to change what they could and what to let go of what they couldn’t.
The key to being strong is realizing that no one is keeping score. You will not be judged on how or when you get through your bad day or your bad week or year. No one is punishing you or testing you. It’s just life and life is a beautiful mess. As long as you struggle with dignity, respecting others and yourself, you will be okay. That’s it. One day, maybe tomorrow, maybe not, you will be okay.
If you want to continue the conversation, join Sher and I at the Heatley Cliff this week. Though I must admit, I’m not nearly as concise as I am here. But, that’s okay too.
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