The Christian apostle, Paul, when commenting on dealing with life’s hardships, made the profound and paradoxical proclamation, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
I have a dear friend who is suffering. He’s in the kind of agonizing physical pain that makes our normal daily emotional drama pale by comparison. My friend and I often text late at night, while I’m up writing and he’s kept awake sobbing through the disease that tortures him when the distraction of the daytime commotion has transitioned to the quiet, stillness of the night. Nighttime has a way of unmasking our soul and his texts are the kind of raw sharings of an open heart — a man who, with the typical machismo and masculine pride drained from his being, has nothing left to hold onto other than his truth … he has become strong in his weakness. I am blessed by his friendship and inspired by his courageous love.
The thought of strength through weakness is, like all great spiritual truths, a paradox — two of life’s extremes fused together until they become an intellectually confusing blur that resonates only in the heart of one who’s been there. We spend our lives trying so obsessively to be strong. We smile through broken hearts, we laugh away the tears and gut through the pain in the belief that big boys and girls don’t cry. And yet we do. Like my friend, sitting in the dark corners of our lives, we cry out, with the piercing silence of desperation, begging to be seen, heard, understood, and loved. From the time we are born, this simple desire drives our existence: to be loved. Pain serves to amplify this need until it’s all we can hear.
As newborn babies our cries for love were welcomed. Our first gasp of air and loud cry were greeted with a hug and tears of joy. But soon the reaction to our cries changes. We’re shushed, told not to cry and plugged with pacifiers, bottles, and sugary treats. Slowly and consistently we’re taught that our feelings don’t matter as much as our parents’ need to work and society’s need for peace and quiet. As we grow, this is reinforced again and again as we’re rewarded for “good” behavior and punished for the “bad.” We learn to succeed in the world we live and soon we translate our need for love into achievements: good grades, acceptance to the right school, and getting the right job when we graduate.
Our need for love is further masked by the marketing of our time, as our life’s challenges are met with Madison Avenue slogans that tell us to numb our pain and get back to the business of pretending to be happy. But an aspirin a day can’t keep the pain away for long. It’s not just corporate America extoling the virtues of ignoring our pain. Self-help books and Sunday sermons are equally filled with well-meaning yet often empty advice designed to keep us on track and following the rules. As my friend shared with me on one particularly painful night, “If one more person tells me to think positively or pray more…”
I watched Caitlyn Jenner’s interview with Diane Sawyer a few weeks ago. After about an hour or so of asking the kind of mundane questions inquiring minds want to know, Diane asked Caitlyn a seemingly simple question: “If you were me, what would you ask you?” With a lump in her throat, a tear in her eye, and the vulnerable honesty of a being who had spent a lifetime running, jumping, and winning in an effort to be loved, Caitlyn replied simply, “Are you going to be okay?”
Let’s take a breath together and allow that question to filter down to our hearts. Am I going to be okay? Take another deep breath. When’s the last time you asked yourself that question? Or allowed yourself the safety to be human, to feel weakness, or to not have to be strong? Are you going to be okay?
While very few of us know what it’s like to be an Olympic gold medalist or a woman hiding in the body of a man, we all know what it’s like to go through life hiding our pain, masking our desire to be loved, and running the race of life while wanting to be something beyond the story our parents, friends, and society have told us we are. And therein we find an invitation within Paul’s words — “For when I am weak, then I am strong” … an invitation to love who we are right now regardless of where we are.
This week I invite you to embrace your humanity. To love yourself through your perceived weakness and to love others through theirs. Ask yourself Caitlyn’s question, “Are you going to be okay?” Invite an honest answer and a dialogue with yourself about what okay means, what it looks like, and the changes it requires in the way you treat yourself. Compassion begins with the acceptance of our humanity. It sprouts like a seed in our hearts, and when tended with loving-kindness it grows and spreads to the world around us. In that way loving yourself, your strengths and your weaknesses, is a gift that feeds us all.
Big hugs of love,