There has been a great deal of discourse lately over strength. What makes someone “strong,” and surprisingly more important, what makes someone “weak.” Discussion also turns to gender, and what qualities in each gender exhibit strength and weakness.
Inevitably, those who are louder and extroverted are more often tagged as strong here. Strength is blasted at you, in your face and ears. Little attention is given to those who deal their strength in swift sharpness. Their consideration and careful manner are mistaken for docility and fragility. Silence is consent. We all know the danger in this argument.
In the world of international development, it’s alarming to come across people who still deal in binary. Where vulnerability is still seen as undesirable, feminine, and weak. I see this in the PCV community, as well as the Cambodian community.
“Where the hell did this come from?” you may wonder. I was watching a movie tonight. I started to cry at one moment towards the very end. I instantly felt a pang of shame for releasing emotion like that during an animated movie. Then anger at my shame, and then a realization.
When I was young, my mother would get angry if I cried over something she felt didn’t need tears. During fights with my sister, I would get so angry I teared up. My mother would yell at me if that happened, which would make me feel even worse and then there was no stopping the tears then. My mother comes from a culture where vulnerability was hidden, private. My grandmother still refuses to see sad movies because she doesn’t want to experience negative or difficult emotions, she just wants to escape. Which is the preference of many people.
12 years ago Saturday I lost my mother. I didn’t cry at the funeral, I rarely cried in front of my family. Instead I drove to my best friend’s house and cried on her mother’s lap. I closed myself in the cooler at work and cried while I stocked the lettuce and the milk. I would go on drives and let myself go. Private.
For a very long time, I refused to watch movies that would make me cry. If I ever was wrangled into watching one or was caught off guard, I employed any tactic I could to avoid it. I don’t know how or why, but one day I decided to let go. I remember my heart beating faster as the lump in my throat grew bigger and bigger. I looked over at my friend and saw her giving in to the emotion and before I knew it, I gave in as well. I felt light, I felt relief.
There is strength in confronting all that is sad and terrible about humanity. To look it in the eye, observe it, get to know it, and remember it after you move on. To know light, one must know dark. Denying the dark and suppressing it is doing a disservice that will inevitably catch up. Negative emotions are toxic and releasing them is a very healing process.
Along those lines, those that show their vulnerability are not weak. Those that are quiet and contemplative are just as strong, if not maybe stronger, than those that are loud and aggressive.
It also takes strength to make and follow through with a decision, no matter how unpopular it is or what the stigma is around that decision.
Showing true vulnerability, kindness, doubt, pause, or perhaps not speaking as loudly as others should not be labeled as weakness.
I’ll end with an anecdote. I was at the gym today and one of the regular male customers came to play ping pong. I’ve seen him play before – he shouts a lot, A LOT, and teases his opponents. I can’t understand 100% of what he says, but from his body language and the reaction from others I see what is going on. It gets on my nerves. Tonight he was playing a guy who barely said a WORD the entire game. The quiet guy was quick, and judging by the score being shouted by a spectator, he was kicking ass. He celebrated his defeat with a cold water and quickly left on his moto.
I admire those I have met here - both American and Khmer – who have challenged the normalized concepts of strength that I admit to internalizing over the years. Keep on keepin’ on.