Two kinds of strength

What does it mean to be a strong person?

We say it all the time, but what do we really mean when we say it? What’s the idea we are thinking of? Perhaps a look at the contexts in which we say it may be helpful.

And the first example that comes to mind is how we say it to people who are crying: “You need to be strong.” Or of people who aren’t: “She’s so strong. She didn’t even cry throughout.” So one way we think of being strong is not crying, or more broadly, not showing excessive emotion.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard it used this way more than in any other way, never mind all the talk about crying doesn’t mean you’re not strong. It’s sort of just so hardwired into how we think about strength, that even when we ostensibly know better, our words in the moment reveal our true beliefs all the same.

The funny thing is lack of emotion as a signal of strength is a fairly recent thing in human history. Even as a kid reading Bible stories I was struck by how readily men—right up to Jesus himself!—were to display anguish and sorrow and pain in public. As a young boy I was struck by this, because it didn’t fit with what I had been led to believe was ideal masculine behaviour. Later on I would read other accounts of ancient times and learn that at least as recently as the ancient Greeks and Romans, displaying emotion was not at all unusual or unexpected.

So when did that change? I’m not sure (I’d actually like to read this up), but I do know that by Victorian times (the 19th century), emotion was already being perceived as a sign of weakness, and strength was being associated with one’s ability to “put emotion aside.” You will note, too, that other Europeans, including Spanish, Italians and Greeks remain relatively more publicly emotional to this day. Put both facts together, plus the global reach and influence (for good and ill) of the British empire and it’s easy to blame them for the spread of the gospel of emotions as weakness.

However, while it’s hard not to feel they played a role, it’s also on record that humans as a whole have not been equally welcoming of public emotion, and I’m genuinely not sure to what degree this has not been the case even in our own histories, such as of my Yoruba people.

But the history really isn’t my focus here. That was just to lay a background. What matters, and what’s clear, is that where we are today is at a place where we associate the absence of displayed emotion with strength, and encourage those who do show emotion to be strong—that is to keep it down a bit.

And that brings me to the other kind of strength.

But to illustrate that, allow me to use an analogy.

Imagine two plates: one thin plastic and one heavy ceramic. Which would you think of as stronger?

The plastic one certainly is much less likely to break if you dropped it, and certainly more resistant to the efforts of a child. And yet it’s flimsier than the ceramic plate, which would certainly be more painful if it dropped on you. Drop the ceramic hard enough, though, and it would crack, or just break, whereas the seemingly flimsy plastic would remain intact—or at most bend a little.

So now we have defined two kinds of strength: plastic and ceramic. Or if you prefer, flexible and rigid. (One other meaning of “plastic” is “flexible,” by the way.)

Rigid strength might get more done (as with the ceramic being able to make more of an impact), and so we tend to celebrate it more. We often say people are strong when they are able to make things happen—despite that being often at the cost of other people who may be hurt or displaced. (When people say Trump is strong, for instance, this is typically what they mean.) The problem with rigid strength is precisely its rigidity, however: yes, it might get more done, but it often can’t take as much of an impact on itself without breaking. Being rigid means your ability to remain whole is dependent on your resistance to change.

Flexible strength is the opposite. It’s strength that absorbs, bends and bounces back. It might not look like much, and it might not seem to make much of an impact, but it’s able to take a lot more impact without breaking apart. Flexible strength doesn’t need things to stay the same to stay whole—it adapts to change and even thrives on it. And yes, if you’re thinking that sounds like resilience, you’re exactly right. Resilience is a vital form of strength.

To summarise then, we can say, speaking very broadly, that rigid strength is more obviously known by its ability to make things, while flexible strength by its ability to take things. And that’s not to say rigid strength can’t take things—even ceramic can fall a few times before it breaks. Nor does it imply that flexible strength can’t make things happen—some of the most impactful people in history changed everything just by outlasting everyone else. So I’m not saying one is better than the other. I really think we need both; it’s just that we are too readily taken in by rigid strength, and too easily ignore the value of resilience.

Funny side story: if you’re Christian, or know anyone who is, there’s something from a letter by Paul the apostle that’s often quoted to mean rigid strength—people often use it to affirm their ability to make anything happen:

I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13)

Now here’s the full context:

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13)

It’s so obviously referring to the strength that can take things—his ability to bear up under anything life throws at him—that I can only attribute the popular read of it to our fascination with the kind of strength that does things.

So what does it mean to be a strong person?

That’s the question we began with, and now we can perhaps attempt to answer it:

Being strong means being able to make things happen and take things that happen to you, without, in either case, falling apart. (Because, yes, making things happen can break you too—picture the ceramic breaking as it hits someone.)

And emotion? Well as you may have noticed, it hasn’t come up at all. Whether a person is emotional or not is irrelevant to their strength or lack thereof. What matters is what becomes of their actions, and what becomes of they themselves.

That’s where strength lies: not in how you express yourself, but in the impact you make and in its impact on you.

Or what say you?

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotes on strength, from The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien.

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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