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How Strong Are You?

In a blanket search for “strong people,” I’m inundated with images of rippling biceps, well-defined abdominal and back muscles. Mohammed Ali slams his fist towards the camera. I hold my breath, entranced by a man balancing his entire body’s weight on one wrist. According to these images, proving one’s strength demands weaving a ridiculously thick chain around the shoulders and core to pull 10-ton trucks down the street. While impressive and commendable, I’m not sure that physicality is the only definition of strength. In fact, I counter that there are versions of strength that have absolutely nothing to do with planking or flexing.

I submit a few other examples to you:

A strong person can withstand great force or pressure. They take the clutch shot as the seconds wind down. When needed in dire situations, they dismiss their doubts. They rise above the oddsmakers’ predictions. This is the already-injured quarterback who takes the field and shuffles outside of the pocket, away from protection. His initial strategy folded on him, and he looks for a solution while hunted by Goliath-size linebackers. A thousand jeers echo around the stadium and he pushes the ball forward with superhuman determination. This is the mom who sacrifices a chunk of her own aspirations for her family’s benefit. She cycles the laundry, the dishes, the homework, the errands, the finances and more. Exhausted by yet another night’s spotty sleep, she rises the next morning, dauntless, and ready to do it all again. Nobody notices her, but everyone needs her.

A strong person moves forward, one step at a time, regardless of the obstacle. I have never met a stronger “mountain climber” than my 3-year-old foster daughter. She suffered every shocking abuse and deprivation imaginable. And yet, she stiffened her jaw, fire blazing behind her calculating eyes. She defied adults. She challenged authority. Without a warm home or refuge, that feisty little one wandered the streets seeking help and independence. I can’t tell you how many strikes she had against her in life. I lost count. But she won.

A mentally strong person is vulnerable. He’s comfortable with himself. He strips away his facade to explore the true reasons behind his fears, doubts, anger, failure, brokenness, addictions, and habits. He processes his insecurities and leans into difficult emotions rather than choosing to shove them into dark corners of his mind. From experience, he knows that shame, guilt, regret, and embarrassment don’t dissipate on their own. They canker even the healthiest bodies. It doesn’t faze him. He reveals his authentic self to his true friends, exposing the trolls and morality mobs for who they really are. Put away your pitchfork, Karen, you can’t intimidate him!

A strong person stands up for what’s right, for justice, for true principles. She recognizes the flaws in the system and in the propaganda. At the risk of her own safety, she opens her home to the refugee and to the misunderstood. Her peaceful protests inspire change. Her dignity and example break down barriers. She might simply carry her books into a new school or refuse to give up her seat on public transportation. She trailblazes her way into public office or Hall of Fame. Because of her, others question what has always been. Thanks to her, generations enjoy greater opportunities and success. She’s not usually popular, but she’s right.

When flooded with his own turmoil, a strong person reaches out to help someone else drowning in their own. This is the man whose home has been ravaged by the elements, nothing recognizable left in its wake. He walks over to his neighbor’s wreckage to help sort through the ruins. It’s the marathon runner floundering towards the finish line, who stops to lift his competitor up off the ground, props him up on his shoulders, and limps to the end. It’s the widower who reaches out and hugs everyone at the funeral stammering for words of comfort, and they all feel lighter together. Logically, it doesn’t make sense. When someone is overwhelmed, the last thing they want to do is help someone else. But somehow, sharing equally heavy loads seems easier together.

How do I paint an image of the person with “strength of mind,” “quiet strength,” or “strength of character?” I use only one word: Indomitable. Life might seem unfair, but she embraces what she can control within her current circumstances. Her unwavering faith and hope shield her from life’s most crushing blows. She trusts in a higher power. Many misunderstand her strength. She’s not immune to emotion or weakness. She’s human. She simply does what she can and leaves the rest to a very real, very personal God. She’s not perfect, but she’s proud of who she is, where she comes from, and how far she’s traveled. She finds ways to be grateful, even when she has every reason not to be.

When I look carefully, I see strength all around me:

I see strength in a young student who fails a written test three times, but still shows up again for a fourth.

I see strength in what is NOT SAID on social media.

I see strength in setting aside a family’s attitudes and expectations to forge a new path.

I see strength in the word NO. But I also see strength in YES.

It takes strength to begin again. To try.

It takes strength to admit wrongdoing.

It takes strength to raise a child in a world that pokes fun at kids, parenthood, family values, and truth.

So while the world tries to shove its fist in my face, chanting for those with more chiseled physiques to prove their stamina, I’m okay right here. I don't have to declare myself "the greatest of all time" to know that I'm a strong woman. I don't have to prove anything to anybody.

And you... Don't you dare convince yourself that I am not talking about you too. I see you. You might feel like strength fizzled out a long time ago. That's not true. The warrior inside you inspires ME to rise up and try again. Your tears aren't weakness. Your prayers aren't ignored. I admire your tenacity to navigate a maze of challenges all at once. Be strong, my friend. Be strong in the way that defines you best. Have courage to take on another day, whatever that might bring. Again, I'm cheering for you.

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