As I become older, I find myself getting “weaker,” as I have always thought of that word, rather than “stronger,” as I thought I would. I more often get emotionally overwrought, or find that I have to take a break from life for a day or two, or am deeply wounded by something that is said that would not have bothered me in the past. I have always thought that “strong” meant that you were able to withstand the worst that life could throw at you and still function everyday, appearing cheerful and content. I no longer believe that.
When I am distressed, it is generally from witnessing someone else’s tragedy, even if in a book or movie, losing loved ones, or finding myself in a situation where people are being unkind and uncompassionate to one another. The older I get, the less I am able to keep up that boundary between myself and my “world” and others and “their world.” What happens to someone in Mali, happens to me. When I see a child being berated in a store, I no longer think “can’t they take that outside?”, but instead consider what that child’s life must be like to be treated that way all the time and how that will affect her or his future well being. I no longer only get angry when someone doesn’t treat me well, but instead I am sorry for whatever has happened to them to make them bitter.
To me, “strength” was always symbolized by a tall, straight pine tree trunk, standing steady in all weather, holding up all the branches and leaves. But now I think that real strength comes from the roots. That’s where the tree soaks up the outside world and uses it to create the beautiful and sheltering trunk and branches. Real strength is being able to take the cries and sorrows of the world within yourself and make them into something healing and nurturing. But, transformation is never purely an act of building up. First you must truly feel all that you have taken in and let it rip you apart, if it must, so that you can bring it back to the world in some other form, whether as a story or poem, or social activism, or just a more loving manner.
When I seemed to withstand so much, I think it was because I had made the walls around me thicker so that I wouldn’t have to think too much about what I was seeing. Also, it has only been in the past ten years that I have seen tragedy happen to my own family, seen loved ones truly suffer. There came a moment, witnessing my mother’s death, when I could no longer keep out the world, when I began to really be in the truth of what was happening around me.
What if we lived in a world where strength was defined differently? What if strength was the ability to feel the pain of others, even if it sometimes left you unable to function for awhile? What if strength was the ability to be torn apart by the suffering of others so that it could be transformed into healing within yourself and then brought back out to the world?
What if a strong community and nation was one where we come to one another’s aid and hold each other up as we feel and empathize, where we celebrate together each other’s triumphs? What if bearing emotional and physical pain without asking for help was not considered weak, just unnecessary, so that never again would someone go without medical treatment or counseling because of what others might think? What if weakness was having a center that is too undeveloped to let in life’s experiences, but that this was considered to be simply an indication of a need to grow, not a personal failing?
What if the symbol of strength was a weeping willow as well as a majestic pine? What kind of world would we live in?