Strength is hard to spot. We most easily recognise its extreme version: great struggle and strife, followed by redemptive, happy endings. Or we are quick to identify it in its exaggerated garb, dressed up in capes, battle gear and war paint, accompanied by a rush of anger and adrenaline.
More often than not, strength is carefully cultivated as a persona. To be strong, we learn, is to hide our wounds well, behind crisp work shirts, glossy Instagram pictures and a whole lot of Alpha swagger. We suck in our aches, longings and despair, put on a brave front and get on with the business of life. On deflated, hopeless days, strength seems purely aspirational – unattainable and larger than life – conjuring images of toned abs, taut stomachs, perfect health, perfect poise, successfully-everafters, and Amazonian warriors with billowing hair.
But we only ever meet the real thing – powerful, abiding inner strength that lives within each one of us – when we run into its conjoined twin, vulnerability. Queasy, embarrassing and messy, vulnerableness seems like the opposite of everything we celebrate as strong. Most of us do our best to outsmart it and almost all of us entertain the doomed hope that If we get powerful and perfect enough, we will be immune to the stomach-churning states of disappointment, loss, failure and rejection that being (vulnerably) human entails.
But to discover all the ways to be strong, is to subject ourselves, repeatedly, to toe-curling, hair-raising vulnerability. Core strength and resilience – the kind that lets us hold our own against the slings, arrows and guided missiles of the world – can only be felt when we give up the fantasy of being infallible and invincible and get tough enough to be weak and nervy enough to be real, soft and visible. Strength-training requires us to engage with life by taking off the protective gear of cool, curated self-images and the armour of airbrushed, self-conscious personas. And show up, unarmed, as we are; as the sum total of the crap and the magic, the fear and the possibility, and the dark and the light.
By resisting the impulse to fight or flee when we tumble into experiences where we feel exposed and seen, and wading through the shadowy places where we feel lost and unable to fit in, we unearth the superpower to be uniquely and eccentrically us, without concealment and disguise. Like some rich mineral ore, we hit upon the motherlode of our strength – our inner worth. The steady bedrock that allows us to comfortably and freely inhabit our skins with our own inherent value, beyond the vagaries of social acceptability and disapproval, expectations, comparisons, beauty standards, Twitter and Facebook followings and the swinging pendulum of career graphs, bank accounts and relationship fortunes.
And so to be strong is to navigate the swirls and eddies of daily vulnerabilities with open-heartedness, comic timing and compassion – for our own maddening frailties, and those of others. To be strong is to risk looking like a bit of an idiot, now and then, so that we can also taste the delicious states of joy, genuineness and connection that vulnerability opens us up to. But mostly, strength is the foolhardy courage to put ourselves out there, again and again – Amazonian warrior-style.