I’m sitting down to write this, on a day I’m feeling strong. Why? Because I went into a doctor’s appointment alone this morning, with the expectation of an examination of a bump on my eyelid, and a resolution that, at most, would include a steroid injection. I left that doctor’s appointment hours later, having had my inside eyelid cut open, and my “chalazion” (the medical term for a sty that turns into a cyst on one’s eyelid) “scooped” out. (Doctor’s term, not mine.) All while I was awake and VERY aware of the mad science happening at each moment. I feel strong and brave because the doctor gave me the option of doing nothing (waiting can sometimes lead to natural resolution), or postponing to a date when I might feel more ready. I was really tempted to postpone because I wasn’t emotionally prepared for the procedure, I was by myself, and I had other things I had to take care of today. But, with the encouragement of the doctor, I went ahead with the procedure. This is seemingly minor, and, in the large scheme of things, NOT a big deal medically, but it had been a long time since I’d been through any kind of invasive medical procedure, and it felt like a personal victory to me. It reminded me that I could handle something scary, on my own.
Why was that reminder so important today? Rewind back about 1-2 weeks, and you’d find me facing a significant professional decision. (More on that soon.) And, I felt scared. I felt scared about making a move into something new and different, I felt wary of making a change, and I felt unsure of myself. These feelings left me thinking…
“Maybe I’m not as strong as I thought I was.”
I found myself comparing myself against those friends I mentioned here – friends who’d not only changed jobs but moved to different cities. I compared myself to a friend who was in the final stages of a turbulent pregnancy (which she’d handled with true grace.) And, in the face of these comparisons, I was falling short.
Is a person actually “strong”, when their strength isn’t consistent and reliable?
If you can’t count on it to show up EVERY time you need it? Sure, I seemed, to the outside world, to handle my divorce five years ago with a degree of emotional toughness, but not many people knew that the breakup of the first relationship that followed that divorce nearly killed me. (I suspect I ended up projecting grief from the failure of both relationships onto the one.) I’m so opinionated about things, that people would likely be incredibly surprised to know how much I question my own mind, on a regular basis. If I am not consistently strong, am I truly strong at all?
And, is strength really a feeling or a reaction? Or is it simply action, no matter how terrified one feels inside? Does strength need to be exercised, like a muscle? Fostered through regularly challenging oneself? Or, though those exercises would undoubtedly be beneficial, is strength something that just resides deep inside most of us? Though I highly doubt I will ever run a marathon, I have massive respect for those who do—those incredibly individuals who have the mental toughness to override their physical limitations. About four and half years ago, I stood in the cheering crowd of a marathon for the first time, and I was overwhelmed by awe over the runners. These people, sprinting (or limping) past me were warriors. Able to fight a battle with themselves, and conquer. They all looked different – some young and noticeably fit, others in less than stellar shape. Rail thing, muscular, or round, they all had a common attribute. Mental strength. Yet, every person I’ve spoken with who’s run a marathon (especially those doing it for the first time) have said they always hit a point where they truly believe they can’t do it.
That means even the toughest mental warriors feel it. The doubt. The uncertainty.
I’m staring at a quote I recently put up on my brand new felt board (belatedly jumping on the trend), with a sudden conviction to change it. By Louisa May Alcott, it reads “I am not afraid of storms for I am learning to sail my ship.” When I read it for the first time, it felt incredibly inspiring. It felt ASPIRATIONAL, but now that I examine it, I’m not sure I can actually relate to it. I’d relate to it more if it read “I am afraid of storms, but I’m going to learn to sail my ship so I can get through them and ultimately feel more capable.” (Perhaps, slightly better constructed than that.) It could be argued, that someone who never actually FELT the self-doubt wasn’t strong.
Because, if there’s no hesitation, no warring of emotions, there’s not really anything that difficult to overcome. No true triumph.
The fear and the insecurity makes our own victories that much sweeter, right? The fact that I wanted to SPRINT out of that doctor’s office this morning when he started talking about scooping my cyst out, yet didn’t… feels like the big win to me. And, perhaps even more importantly, these internal battles keep us in a position where we can relate to others. EVERYONE STRUGGLES. A person who was so strong that she or he never experienced real hesitation and apprehension, would have difficulty in relationships with others. Those who are SO certain of their own steps, lose perspective and empathy. (I’ll refrain from making a comment about our President here. Oh whoops. I just did.)
I propose that strength is not simplistically the ability to act bravely in the face of uncertainty, but it’s also a certain kindness with self and others. A kindness that understands nuance, and respects the moments of deliberation and struggle in life. A kindness that suspends judgement. I think strength should have some soft resolve to it. I think there is strength in contemplation. And ultimately, yes, in taking steps toward a goal that don’t feel comfortable or familiar. But, those steps might look different for every person.
Why am I writing this? I suppose, in some ways, it’s a step toward that kindness I mentioned.
That kindness to self and others. I’ve been fairly hard on myself as of late, related to topics of career, relationships, etc. Have questioned whether I’m failing to live up to my potential when I choose to watch a TV show instead of read a book. When I choose to be still instead of being active. When I choose to stay in Indianapolis rather than venturing off to a more diverse city. Regardless of whether there’s any truth to the things I’ve been beating myself up about, I certainly know that I could afford to be a little more forgiving of myself. And, perhaps there is someone else out there who feels the same. Someone who is making small and intentional steps of strength; small steps that might go unnoticed by everyone else. Small steps that, in moments of self-criticism, might feel too small to matter.
…Perhaps this all relates to comparison more than I’d realized until this very moment. That, by attempting to arrive at some universal definition of strength,
I’m overlooking the possibility that perhaps strength can only really be defined by oneself, and for oneself. Therefore rendering comparison utterly useless.
Did I find some resolution, in relation to the question with which I titled this essay? I’m not sure; nor am I sure that I was truly seeking a conclusive answer. For now, I’m going to embrace the idea that the contemplation and pursuit of strength is strength itself, as long as humility and kindness are in the mix. And, that hopefully, comparison isn’t.