Gentle Strength

“What’s a true sign of strength?” asked the boy.

“Gentleness,” said the horse.

-Charlie Mackesy

Last week on the interwebs, I came across these words over an image of a woman walking on a beach: “Beneath every strong independent woman lies a broken little girl who had to learn how to get back up and to never depend on anyone.” As I read that, some inner part of me stood up, raised her fist and gave a rebel yell in solidarity. I could largely resonate with those words, as I know that stance all too well, and I imagined that many of my fellow humans could. How many of us have had moments in our very young lives, when we’ve been hurt by whatever circumstance we found ourselves in, only then to create plenty of coping armour as our self-preservation senses take a firm hold to keep us safe? Though, even in its attempt to protect us, that hardened callus of strength can harbor a blithe disregard for the very parts of us we’ll fiercely protect with an air of toughness.

For me, this tough skin meant, among other things, being cautious to share what really matters to me, rarely asking for help or support, mustering up the chutzpah to do it all myself, not fully trusting that others will deliver or hold their word, and being poised to be disappointed by what they deliver upon (only then to do it myself anyway).

I toyed with letting go of that stance many times as I’ve gotten older, and many times it felt that I had been proven right. It’s hard to let the shell fall away. This happened once on a dance floor once with a guy who asked me to dance. There I was, in his arms, and he asked if he could dip me (that bend the woman over backwards towards the floor move). I gave him the squinty eye, he rolled his eyes at my disbelief in his skills and said: “Trust me!” “Ok,” I thought to myself. “I’ll take what the universe is offering here and do something new.” So I let go. He then proceeded to not only dip me, but to drop me on the floor. (Was I the idiot for trusting someone else so overtly, or was he the idiot for dropping a very petite woman in a simple move on the dance floor after much assurance that I wouldn’t be dropped?) Needless to say, it’s been hard to trust anyone but me with me throughout my life, so I keep a lot locked down behind a pleasant smile, a veneer of “fine”, a highly-refined blend of wit and humor that my partner refers to as a ‘can of snark,’ and a seemingly misanthropic behavior set. It’s my go-to out in the world.

Wrapped inside of that tart candy-coated shell is a whole lot of things: big ideas and desires, longings, and gobs of feelings about myself, life, work, things, my people, worries, questions, and uncertainties. There’s a lot of Big Love things (the stuff that makes me feel expansive), and a lot of fears (the stuff that makes me feel less than expansive). Mostly, there’s a whole lot of human truth in my internal status most of the time, yet much of it feels too tender to share, to tender to trust that it will be held by an equally tender heart on the receiving end. Because of this, a subversively simple “how are you?” feels like a loaded question.

Somewhere in my history as a little person, perhaps I needed things and the folks in charge didn’t deliver. Or, perhaps, the sensitive things or things most important to me way back then weren’t met with the same gravitas as they did in my little heart. The way we cope and manage our early hurts, the ones that are deeper than the skinned knees, shape how we roll through life, where we’re guarded and what we’re open about. For some, it’s a chip on the shoulder, a wall of armor, a highly philosophical stance that denies emotions and spirituality and treats folks as if they are software (even Brené Brown, in Braving the Wilderness, notes how her young life wrought with parental issues made her forego all emotions for data). We each have our own way of keeping our most true and tender spots behind locked doors which can lead us to fail to ask for or receive help, voice our needs, or say the things most important to us all in an attempt to protect ourselves.

Instead, we stay tight like a fist to “tough it out,” wholly independent as we are, and so proud of it. Yet, oftentimes, in that stance, we’re more like a flower bud failing to open. It’s also a bit lonely and bereft of the healing the world has to offer.  

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anais Nin

Self-preservation is a genius mechanism that operates for us. But operating out of toughness isn’t always the best modus operandi, nor is it the most brave. Resiliency does not mean building a wall to protect you from life. As we seal off the hurts or guard potential hurts by sealing ourselves off, we lose our full range of movement so to speak, as if we’re guarding a physical injury. Operating to keep pain at bay can confine us to a limited set of experiences and ways of relating with others and ourselves. Being a tough cookie can only get you so far, and it can keep you distant from what you really want.

In this podcast conversation with Grace Belangia, there’s a moment when she’s talking about not wanting to get hurt by rejection that reminded me of that independent woman meme I read on the internet last week. Jerry asks her, “What do you do with the feelings of rejection?” “Toughen up,” she replies quickly. When I heard that I stopped. I knew that message all too well, especially as a woman who at times feels like she needs to be an ice queen. And, I also knew that’s not always the most courageous way to be.

That message we so often hear — “toughen up!” —  can be a false sense of strength when we’re being challenged by what haunts us, or wanting to be freely ourselves in the world. The strength we’re looking for isn’t a tough shell, but rather an unshakeable inner resolve that shows up with compassion for ourselves instead of an external ferocity. As a more gentle stance, it’s by no means weak. Strength comes from knowing who you are, what your boundaries are, and that you are the only one who can really reject you. Strength by any other name is just a posturing of defenses.

“What does courage mean?” asked the boy.
“To tell the truth of who you are with your whole heart,” said the horse.

– Charlie Mackesy

Being vulnerable, voicing needs and desires, asking for what you want, voicing your truth, sharing big ideas most important to you are moments that require the kind of strength that has the ability to have it’s heart broken. It takes courage to show up for life.

It takes courage to trade in our walls for good fences and to let life meet you, but a certain grace finds you in those moments of gentleness. When you realize the shell of defenses that you feel holds you together can be shed for a slightly more permeable space where your inner life meets the world, and the world meets you back, that’s where the magic happens. We can expand in that space, and not let our fears keep us small. Being vulnerable together requires an act of love. As the wise illustrated horse of artist Mackesy notes, “when we are vulnerable with each other we are strong.”