Mauritius has been a real roller coaster for me so far. I am learning a lot about myself, human nature, and what it means to persevere. This trip has tested me in ways I never thought possible, and it has forced me to question how far I can really push myself. So today I’d like to focus on a topic that has been at the forefront of my thinking lately: strength.
Strength is a challenging concept to correctly define. At the heart of this difficulty is the fact that experience isn’t objective. You and I may witness the same event, but how we think about it, how it makes us feel, and how it impacts us in the long term will never be identical. This isn’t just theory; there is a reason that testimony from multiple witnesses to an event can be so greatly varied. Like a fingerprint, we are each uniquely carved by how we interpret our experiences. So then how do we sculpt a universal and accurate concept of human strength and, in the same vein of thought, human weakness?
The answer is, we don’t. This feels counterintuitive, especially for a person like me who feels anxious when something can’t be defined and filed into its ordered place in the world. But it is ultimately healthier to let strength mean different things to different people than to limit its reach by crafting a set of criteria. In the same way that we have recently begun to acknowledge the idea of multiple intelligences, we need to start accepting that there are different kinds of strengths.
Physical strength has historically been an ideal trait to have. When our ancestors were chasing down prey (or running away as prey themselves), being able to sprint fast, leap high, and throw strong was of the utmost importance. And even though most of us no longer have to make catching or evading animals a priority, we still value physical strength among our soldiers, athletes, and law enforcement officials. I think of people like Lance Armstrong and Mia Hamm, whose bodily abilities are a manifestation of their hard work and discipline. They deserve the utmost respect and admiration for their physical achievements.
But let’s be honest: the majority of us couldn’t be as physically strong as people like Michael Phelps even if we wanted to. And this is where it becomes infinitely more complex. Is an individual who crumbles under the strain of a marathon but endures the loss of multiple family members in one year weak? I don’t think anyone would successfully argue ‘yes.’ We recognize that strength is not just about physical ability but also incorporates emotional, intellectual, and social capabilities, just to name a few. And within the nonphysical category, there exists the same huge variation in type. I am hard pressed to find proof that a person diagnosed with cancer must muster more strength than someone living with an addiction. My point is that we can’t compare challenges. They are each unique, as are each individual’s reaction. The nearest I can come to correctly defining human strength is that it resembles perseverance, but even that isn’t completely on point.
Furthermore, I don’t think that strength means a person appears in control of their emotions 100% of the time. The fact is that people process challenges in unique ways. A complaining crier is not necessarily weaker than the stoic who silently bears her trials; they just have varied means of articulating themselves. Vocal and animated communication and apparent anguish do not represent defeat. The development of a mental illness like PTSD, for example, is not an indicator that the individual in question is weak. It just means that they cope differently. In my opinion, strength isn’t about the manner in which you keep going; it’s about the fact that you do keep going. It’s perseverance. So cry if you want to, throw a tantrum, run until you’re more than exhausted. Do what you need to do to deal, but deal. And, while you’re at it, stop evaluating strength based on how people express. Focus on the simple fact of whether or not they emerge from whatever tribulation has burdened their path in life.
On balance, the people that I know do a good job of accepting the idea that we possess different combinations of strengths and weaknesses. But, unfortunately, I have come in contact with people who are too quick to pass judgment. These individuals feel that their strength is the only strength and condemn those who differ from their subjective norm as weak and cowardly. The irony is that those who try to define strength in order to reduce the unpredictable variables that so unnerve them are most likely to be surprised. Their self-imposed limitations don’t account for the idea of multiple and elastic strengths. People, after all, unfailingly rise to the occasion when destiny calls; they channel tenacity they never knew they had. If strength is about surprising everyone, including yourself, about how far you will go to persevere, then those who judge are inevitably going to be wrong about who is and isn’t strong. This is not the kind of future than can be predicted.
Furthermore, those who try to exclude others from the category of strength are lacking an important strength themselves: empathy. I think it takes a huge amount of courage for someone to look at the very foreign experiences of another individual and view them with respect and understanding. My mother once told me that you can’t judge another person’s pain no matter how big or small it is. Pain is pain. Likewise, it doesn’t matter if it isn’t your strength; strength is strength.
Regardless of whether or not you feel that this idea of different but equal challenges is legitimate, I think we can agree that it is unfair to pass judgment about a person’s strength without fully understanding what they have been through and how it has affected them. Walk a day in their shoes; you may find that their challenges, though different from yours, leave you gasping for breath. I know this is true for me. I often look at someone and wonder how they managed to persevere through trials that I feel would break me in a matter of moments. I can’t claim to always act without judgment; I am far from perfect. But, if anything, I recognize my own flaws common with society and advocate that we all make an effort to stop categorizing people as strong or weak based on narrow evaluations of what the words mean.
I look at the people in Mauritius and I see strength. It is such a different kind than I have experienced, but it is still strength all the same. I am grateful to have been exposed to people who struggle and persevere through challenges I have never had to even think about facing. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (a wonderful book that somehow manages to simultaneously capture our childhood fantasies while answering burning questions about human nature), Dumbledore says something to Harry that really makes me stop and think about our mistakes in trying to define what it means to endure: “There is no shame in what you are feeling…on the contrary, the fact that you can feel pain like this is your greatest strength.” The life that we so deeply value would be nothing without the agonizing challenges that shape who we are. I cannot come close to defining what being human means, but I do know that emotions, both euphoric and excruciating, are part of what makes our species so remarkable. No matter how difficult they may be to deal with, I wouldn’t want a life without them. Because, at the end of the day, the sun feels so much better after surviving the storm.