There’s a quality of existence to our lives that we seem constantly to be chasing. When we’re at risk of losing our lives, or when we desire a fortitude that allows happiness and peace of mind even in the face of interminable suffering, we all vie for courage and strength.
While I’m not facing an enemy outnumbered on the battlefield, I am chronically ill, and know a thing or two about endless, paralyzing suffering and the certainty of death.
I run into strength too often, and I’d like to talk about why I think we are doing ourselves a massive disservice.
When we talk about physical strength, it’s easy to determine exactly what we mean, and then find people who fit those definitions. If you live on a farm isolated with only your family, then whoever can carry the most, and work the longest, is the strongest. If you’re a weight-lifter, than whoever can lift the most, is the strongest. Physical strength aids us in our every day activities, and makes our lives practically easier. Mental strength is a little more complicated.
When you test physical strength, you narrowly define the parameters (time, the quantity of the load lifted, and the quality of the lift etc…). You prepare, test, then rest. In real life, it’s the same; you have jobs to do, you do them, then you rest – you don’t depend on your great strength to live daily, and basically.
Mentally, you have to be strong forever; save for sleep, mind-altering substances, and immediately satisfying distractions, your always mentally ‘lifting’. Our ‘strength’ can be defined as our ability to produce goal-oriented results, consistently over time, within the context of our experiences (past, present, and future). Those experiences are often disabling, and painful, and cause doubt. Our mental lives distinguish us from machines, yet we still define our mental strength mechanistically. How can you possibly be ‘strong’ always. We define our physical strength at our peaks. But identifying mental strenght it’s like asking someone to lift their maximum continuously forever.
We define our physical strength in terms of the best results we produce when it matters. Perhaps we should consider doing the same for mental strength – or the character quality of strength (virtue). Forcing people to be strong all the time is damaging and pointless, and as I’ll try to show, is really a form of weakness.
I have friends who share my disease that are managing very well; they have loving families, and they have friends, and they have confidence and great social skills. They feel the pain, and know the tune of suffering, but they never lose themselves. Those people, they talk about strength a lot.
There’s this one person I know who refuses to let anyone ‘negative’ become a part of her life. To her, and others like her (and they are a majority), being negative doesn’t mean having a corrupt potential (always looking at things pessimistically), it means being less than they are – literally being negative. People with huge health concerns, and unsupportive families; people alone, frightened, and ill-prepared. People without the fortitude that allows happiness and peace of mind even in the face of interminable suffering, and thus people who pose a threat to our collective sense of security and well-being.
I’m one of those ‘negative’ people, and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of this quality of strength. Is strength being able to endure pain and suffering? Or is strength being able to avoid pain and suffering? Is a person who remains the same through suffering strong? Is it strong to hold onto your beliefs no matter what contrary evidence you discover?
In short, I don’t think strength exists; at least not in any of our common terms. A person isn’t ‘weak’ because they are afraid, and feel pain, and feel uncertainty. And likewise a person isn’t strong because they don’t.
Strength in our own terms is just luck. The ‘lucky’ are afraid of being weak, and that fear drives this commodification of ‘strength’.
If you believe that our lives are governed by our free-will than what I’m saying won’t sit right with you. Because what I’m saying is that people are very determined; by luck, by chance, and often by our own ‘actions’. We have consciousness, and thus we do have a certain degree of free-will. But that free-will is something we have to discover; and it’s different for everyone. How can someone be strong for suffering less, and another weak for suffering more, if the conditions under which they suffer differ so drastically. If very single person had the same experiences, and were subject to the same physical, mental, and existential pain, and there were noticeable differences in how they managed to endure, then perhaps you could talk about strength and weakness. But that’s not the case in our world. The weak are almost always justifiably ‘weak’. And the strong, are almost never justifiably strong.
Strength isn’t necessarily what you endure, or even how you endure, it’s if you endure. That endurance can only be known if the person enduring vocalizes their journey. This tradition of polarizing life by mislabeling the character of a person strong or weak on the basis of how we observe their suffering, or the products of their lives, is corrosive and isolating.
You’re not weak because you hurt more, and you’re not strong because you hurt more. We built cities and houses and put up walls to protect ourselves from the dangers in our environment. That makes our cities strong, but not necessarily each individual. There is a type of person who is so self-critical that they are willing to live outside our houses, and cities, and walls, because they need to find out if it’s possible to become strong.
According to the modern conventions, I don’t think it’s appropriate to call a person strong or weak. Partly because the weak are often at a genetic and social disadvantage (luck), partly because the way we go about evaluating mental strength is inappropriate and ineffective, and partly because everyone is at a different stage in their development. And yet it’s so important to have that hope in our lives – that we can endure, and that we can be happy, and feel safe.
Right now, I think that there are two types of mental strength: according to how much we suffer, and according to how much we accomplish. I feel comfortable saying that, because I don’t think that our mental growth is static and fixed (which is the impression you’d get evaluating people at particular fixed moments in time). We evaluate our strength according to the nature of our experiences moreso than according to the results we produce (the income, the job, the wife, the legacy). And people who really suffer, and are incredibly afraid and uncertain and feel so inadequate need to know their value more than the billionaire CEO. His patronage is known to him, the disabled homeless person has no idea how important they are – and according to the rules we’ve set as a species, no way to find out.
You have to be mentally strong always, because your experiences, and your responsibilities, and your ‘fate’, and environment, is your load. And those things will always be with you. Therefore the person who suffers more, is stronger. The person who produces the most, mustn’t necessarily have the most painful load, and so their valuations should not take precedence.
As you can see this is very much a work in progress- a rough mental map. But I believe that the criticisms I’ve listed above are valid, and the solutions even more so. The need to change the way we define strength in a social and interpersonal context is great – as great as the need for strength, and our propensity for labeling ourselves and others. Many of the social inequities stem from viewing people as inadequate. Those inadequacies aren’t vague and are apparent. We treat people who are weak very poorly, and most of have no idea why; those that do, often believe that every person is capable of overcoming all of their pratfalls – a proposition elevated to the rank of religious doctrine (based on bias and almost always a double standard).
We can define strength in terms of an individuals peak performance; how they respond to particular situations. And we do this quite often: take heroes for example. When a person does something spectacular and selfless – something most wouldn’t do – we often don’t care about who they were before. We do believe almost intuitively in the power of a redemptive action. But defining strength in that way won’t solve the problem: because the problem is that we judge people we see (on the street, on the news) and hear about without really giving our judgements any consideration; we consider the perceptually salient information only – and very briefly. It works for certain scenarios, and for most when we have the time and the desire to think things through, but it isn’t an effective solution.
We can choose to define strength in terms of the amount of suffering a person has to endure – and often the percepetually salient stimulus is how they appear, and how they behave. In that way we reduce the ethical mistreatment of the vulnerable, as well as ennoble them and give them a sense of pride.
We can also still define strength in terms of a persons achievements, and their qualities. This is still an important method – although not the most verifiable and effective, or morally preferred one. We do need a rubric to orient our own journey at times – certain people much more than others.
People are complicated. That complexity, to me, should take precedence over how well someone decreases our own faults and ‘weakness’ (those reversible problems we deliberately ignore). Because if this discussion has demonstrated anything, it’s that luck is a huge bitch. At any moment your life could be turned around. Our definitions of strength are incorrect because when you go from strong, to broken, those principles that ground your definition of strength in character are not capable of being reverse engineered. Because they’re incorrect, and simple, and don’t match the complexity of life. Complexity is good, and has the answers.