Why Strength Isn’t What We Think It Is

I used to think that strength was defined a certain level of immutability— the ability to remain unchanging, whether it be regarding things I love, ideas I believed in, things I preferred or didn’t, or lives I wished I’d had. I embraced that a sense of authority, initiative, power, and confidence equated to strength, and things that I KNEW I never went back on. I withstood this ideology for many, many years, always wholeheartedly believing that my understanding of words as simple as “strength,” “love,” “goodness,” or even “compassion” were not only logical, but were unsusceptible to any form of doubt or questioning. With time, I’ve been lucky enough to experience things I never imagined, learn concepts that were once foreign, have met people who have lifted and held my heart, and have felt things I once deemed unfathomable. My life has been anything but ordinary and nothing like I expected. It has been both wholly fulfilling and quite empty, full of success and equally full of failure, drawn to the highest of mountaintops and the deepest of valleys, and has been tainted with equitable amounts of both light and darkness. Life on this earth has led me in directions I never expected, and I’ve changed with every strike of the ticking clock as I’ve seen myself through. But I’ve found that keeping myself open to new things and new people across time, embracing the unpredictable ebbs and flows this life brings, and even changing my perspective as I continue to learn and grow from those around me is what I truly desire. I don’t desire to be rigid in my beliefs, unwavering, or unmovable in any part of life, for true growth and meaning I believe to come from a certain evolution of the heart. I’ve been a witness to my own change and constantly-altering mindset my entire life, but I’ve only recently begun to view this characteristic of mine as a form of strength, as opposed to a problematic and shameful form of meekness and in inability to remain resolute. You can be strong and you can also be quiet. Strength and volume do not have to coexist, just as strength and reservedness/quietude are not mutually exclusive. You can be everything all at once —strong, quiet, vulnerable, emotional, courageous, loud, and empathetic— and that is a beautiful gift.

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I’ve had to do a lot of thinking about why I had embraced and engrained these understandings about myself and what I once deemed to be flaws in my character, and with time and intention, I’ve realized that my life thus far (like everyone’s) has led me to believe certain falsities about human nature, who I am, and what I’m meant to be in this world. I’ve allowed my deepest insecurity of being perceived as incompetent, incapable, weak, reliant, and codependent to have dominion over any kind of freedom I had in actually pursuing, choosing, and becoming who I wanted to be. In some strange way, the inexplicable fear I had surrounding these kinds of visions of me forced me to develop traits, feelings, and elements of character that succeeded in being the antitheses of what I’d abhorred, but failed in liberating me to become someone I admired and wanted to be. In other words, my fears bode well in steering me away from the dislikable character traits I saw in myself and others, but they did not grant me any liberty or vision to see what I may have found to be likable. In orienting my life in a such a way that mirrors Negative Politics (i.e. formulating your beliefs around what you don’t like/wish to avoid as opposed to what you do like and wish to pursue), I unknowingly embarked on a journey that led me to a complete lack of confidence and fulfillment. Having given no real consideration to the things and kind of person I did want to be, how I wanted to be embraced, and what I wanted to do to love others, I found myself living a life defined by oppositions.

For fear of being perceived as incompetent, I valued intellect and intelligence almost above all else. For fear of being weak and vulnerable, I adopted confidence (often a false one) to remind myself and others that I have authority. For fear of being reliant, I revered solitude and lonesomeness as a virtue, for it meant that I could survive, should everyone choose to abandon me. For fear of being meaningless of labeled Other, I tirelessly sought control and power over my own life and everything I engaged with. For fear of being incapable, I prided myself on an insatiable appetite to be perfect in as many ways as possible, leaving no room for people to stare or criticize.

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But, this isn’t living. Orienting my entire life and being around what I feared most surely didn’t lead me to the discovery of any true virtues, as I so thought it would. I expected that living my life in complete inversion to what I hated most about the world (and myself) would light my path and somehow lead me to joy and fulfillment. If I didn’t like A, then I could just figure out what the opposite of A was (ex: B) and pursue that in order to be happy…right? No. The problem, I’ve found, is that things like true happiness, virtue, fulfillment, or flourishing (“eudaimonia” in Greek philosophy) cannot be intellectualized⁠— they are to be experienced and felt. Just as one cannot see love, empathy, kindness, or even goodness, the greatest things human life has to offer us cannot be seen or perceived. What most makes us human is the emotionality, mutability and individualistic way in which we move through this world, and the corrigibility of our minds and hearts. And perhaps our inability to fully comprehend exactly what makes it meaningful is the most beautiful part of it all. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defines a virtue as being “a mean between two vices.” That is to say, if cowardice and recklessness are both vices, Aristotle’s perceived virtue would be courage. The same conclusion can be made in reference to temperance serving as the virtue between overindulgence and insensitivity. Through finding the midpoint between what Aristotle deemed to be “two extremes” as mentioned, he claimed to have found the nature of virtuosity. Although I definitely don’t agree with Aristotelian Virtue as a whole, in hindsight, I do think he may have drawn some important conclusions that I find visible in the trajectory of my own life.

Considering what Aristotle has to say, it’s no secret to me that in my attempt to avoid one vice or trait that I did not desire for myself, I barreled forward and landed upon things that may also be considered vices. In my forceful, shame and fear-driven path I paved for myself, I completely failed to recognize that seeking the antithesis of what I understood to be a vice may not necessarily lead me to landing upon a virtue. In fact, moving so jadedly and blindly through life only led me to find and experience a field of oppositions that I now understand to only serve as that: oppositions. They didn’t fulfill me, give me meaning, or make my life any more worthy of joy than living in fear did, and that’s how I know it wasn’t right. So, maybe Aristotle was right. Maybe I was moving too fast all along and I flew right past the virtue I was seeking all along, because I had my sights set on something I knew would contradict every fear I had. But what kind of life is one lived only out of fear? I don’t want to know myself as someone who consistently flees from what I’m afraid of being, only to land upon other things I’m equally un-proud of. So, you reflect, you learn, and you keep going. After spending years and years studying politics, philosophy, and literature of all kinds, I think the real secret of life is that no one really knows what we’re doing. That’s the tragedy of the human condition, isn’t it? We spend our entire existence trying to decipher what is meaningful, who the people are we’re meant to spend time with, finding the things that “spark joy” (thanks Marie Condo), and racing the clock, only to find that the clock will always win. But, that doesn’t mean that this life isn’t worth it. Maybe, in an odd way, Aristotle was trying to teach us something about the essentiality of the journey, the “in-between.” The spaces between lines, the words left unspoken, and the feelings never shown or even understood— it all matters deeply. And perhaps it’s a conscious choice of our own to stop for a while and acknowledge the spaces, the everything that’s exist within and amongst the nothingness.

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I’m not sure where I am now, whether I’ve found anything of impact, or if I have come remotely close to reaching what I hope to be my purpose in this world. But I am sure of one thing: I’m learning to embrace the everyday, the mundane, the things I once despised about my character or the world around me, for there’s meaning in all of it. I’ve felt victim to the fleetingness of life and the weight of endings for as long as I can remember, so much so that I’ve forced myself to miss some beautiful things that ARE happening and ARE here. We only get one go-around on this earth, and what a remorseful thing it would be to only remember the fear, pain, agony, and emptiness at the end of it all. Nothing hurts more than a heart left to mourn the possibilities that weren’t given a life or weren’t worthy of embrace, and I don’t want to let go of the wonder this life brings.

There are a million moments waiting for me, and I don’t want to miss a thing. You shouldn’t either. (:

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