August 29, 2016

We Need to Redefine “Strength.”

Justin Luebke/Unsplash

My story of strength is nothing short of ordinary, but it is precisely its ordinariness that wills me to give it a voice.

Many of us know this tale intimately—the tale of the broken (and rebuilt) heart.

Like most, it begins with two people falling in love.

An enduring friendship that became more than we could’ve imagined at only 19.

In the best moments, there was unmatched honesty, peace, laughter and love.

It was the kind of loving freedom that allowed us to grow into separate people over long distances, yet still feel deeply held by each other; but, as we transitioned into a new decade, maybe those distances became more than just physical.

Tiny fractures grew with the seeming misalignment of our projected future selves. We were caught in the proverbial “shoulds” of our late 20s, rather than just living, as we were, for as long as time allowed us.

The strains on our lives spread into those emerging fracture lines like molten mud, making the lines deeper, wider, tectonic.

Then, in the culminating chapter of our relationship, we decided to leave it all behind to travel the world, but when all was stripped bare, the cracks of our relationship were exposed and we were wide apart.

Just like that, my best friend, lover, and confidant, the person who accompanied me through most of my 20s, had gone.

In this unexpected heartbreaking finale, I knew I had two choices. To retreat home to the safety of the familiar, or to keep wandering these foreign lands alone.

In what was one of the hardest decisions of my life, I kept walking. I have never looked back.

Trepidation stayed with me like an unwanted travel companion; but every day, I walked, I breathed, I was.

This feeling of alive was incredibly comforting amongst all the internal chaos.

In time, the pain slowly shed like the peeling of a second skin, and I found contentment with the remaining layers of self like I never had before.

It was the single greatest gift he could have ever given me—myself.

For the first time in 10 years, every choice was my own. It was liberating.

Sure, there were times when I felt sheer fear, panic, and grief, but I never doubted my decision to keep going.

Whenever I thought I couldn’t travel alone, I remembered I already was.

Whenever I thought something bad might happen, I remembered it already had.

Whenever I looked to a future so different than the one I envisaged a year ago, I remembered that life would unfold regardless of whether I held onto lost dreams.

As I kept walking, I saw the most incredible things, and met the most remarkable people who journeyed with me through one of the hardest and most amazing experiences of my life.

My family and friends became my overseas champions, sending me regular reminders, “you are strong,” “keep going,” “we love you.” I am so grateful for them. Despite the distance, we had never felt more connected.

So, why after all the struggles and acts of courage this past year, am I so hesitant to call myself “strong?”

Why do I still feel like it is not deserved, like my story cannot equal the kind of trials people endure daily? Perhaps the fear comes from knowing that I don’t always feel strong, that it changes from moment to moment.

Despite my ambivalence, I am compelled to speak about it. I fear that not acknowledging these everyday, ordinary acts of strength that exist within all of us, may risk a crucial part of who we are becoming un-storied from the dominant narrative of our lives.

In a world filled with perpetual discourse, the language of blame, shame, and pain permeate so much of our encounters with others, and ourselves. The fact is that the words that we and others use have the power to shape our identity.

Well, I think it’s time we redefine the word strength, and reclaim it as part of our personal lexicon.

Here are some things I learnt this year about strength:

Strength is not just for the people we read about: the famously courageous.

Strength is not just the physical prowess to climb mountains or run the furthest.

Strength is not the ability to shout the loudest while silencing the voice of others.

Strength is not subjugation through the perversion of power, hate, fear and prejudice.

Strength is the ability to anchor in the eye of a storm, and to make room for all of our experiences, no matter how painful.

Strength is the ability to keep going, despite the weight of the past or the uncertainty of the future.

Strength is the ability to acknowledge that at times, I do not feel strong; in fact, I feel lonely, scared, and angry. But that’s okay. I will be okay. There may be a time when I need help to feel okay, and that’s fine too.

Strength is the ability to be vulnerable, and admit that I won’t always get it right, and see it not as a weakness, but as a defying act of courage.

Strength is saying from a position of value, “I am enough” and “for now this all it can be.”

Strength is sitting alongside someone in an empathetic exchange, listening and being curious. Not playing the shame-game where everyone loses.

Strength is the quiet and unyielding friend who often gets forgotten about, but is always there when we need it, if we just trust and hold on.

Strength comes from the courage we find to trust in our hearts.

Strength can help us to walk among those who seek to harm us, and to find love and gratitude for what we have.

Strength is the ability to be still and sit with our ever-changing emotions.

Strength will help me to keep breathing even if I feel like I want to stop.

Strength will allow me to be all in with the most important and challenging relationship of all, myself.

I know my story of strength may not be particularly remarkable, but it belongs to me, and it’s power comes from that very act of ownership, because owning this piece of my story will help me when I inevitably feel stuck, lost, uncertain, time and time again.

That is the true power of talking about strength.

So please, let’s start talking about our stories of struggle and strength, with those honored enough to listen and willing to share their own.


Author: Chantell Douglas

Image: Justin Luebke/Unsplash

Editor: Emily Bartran

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