Tears as a sign of inner strength in troubled waters


Teary woman 'Be strong.' 'Stay strong.' 'You are stronger than you know.' To scroll through Facebook is to meet such exhortations constantly.

They will often form the basis for a self-help meme, a mode of expression which is ubiquitous on social media: a nature photograph, typically, with the chosen motto printed over it in an appropriately friendly font, put together by somebody, somewhere, and shared, and shared again around the world.

Some seem circular, and strangely unhelpful. 'You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.'

Some, at a time of rising concern about violence against women, are downright alarming. 'A strong woman is one who is able to smile this morning like she wasn’t crying last night.'

Some are the stuff of fascistic nightmares. 'The world is the great gymnasium where we come to make ourselves strong.'

Oh, and let us not forget poor Nietzsche’s repulsive, and ever popular, 'That which does not destroy us makes us strong.' (Well, that’s all right, then.)

But the one I find most comically fascinating is this: 'People cry, not because they’re weak, but because they’ve been strong for too long.' (Like many gems of wisdom on the internet, it is often attributed to Johnny Depp, who must find his unsolicited status as a teacher of wisdom, interchangeable with the Buddha, Oscar Wilde and John Lennon, quite bewildering.) The meme is, I think, a highly revealing example of the genre, because of the way it turns itself upside down to defend the one weeping from a slander it seems to assume would be a slander indeed. For after all, if the person crying actually were weak, instead of a strong person in disguise, well, that really would be despicable.

I can only imagine that many people find these mantras about strength encouraging, perhaps even life-saving. Perhaps most people identify as 'strong' and enjoy being reminded of it. Perhaps such words are often said, or shared, with little reflection, simply to offer the comfort most ready to hand, by asserting the most fashionable virtue.

But I find them terrifying.

Why? Because I cannot deafen myself to the implied threat  I hear within them. It seems to me that they are really saying, 'Be strong… or else.'

'Be strong… because if you are not strong you are weak, and our society has contempt for the weak.'

'Be strong… because if you are weak you will not be acceptable… you will lose our support and sympathy… you will not fit into the story we want to tell, about brave battles with cancer or depression or addiction…'

'Be strong… because if you are not we will be entitled to abandon you.'

And I can’t help relating this most vaunted of virtues to the fear, hostility or lack of empathy there often seems to be  towards such groups as the mentally ill, the poor and the elderly.

Why is a lack of strength so abhorrent? Are fragility and vulnerability to be avoided at all costs? Could frailty not be something we appreciate and respect? Might it not be more important to be authentic than to be strong?

I search my memory, but I cannot recall a single instance when I loved anyone or anything for his or her or its strength. Everything, everyone I ever loved, I have loved because of some form of vulnerability. And everything I value in life — love, creativity, compassion — has more to do with sensitivity than strength.

There are many virtues I would put before strength as a desirable quality in a human being. Compassion. Kindness. Fair-mindedness. Perceptiveness. Empathy. In fact, anything that contributes towards the ability to love. Of course, how much you value strength might depend partly on how you define it, and strength could be a part of all the virtues I have mentioned here. Strength can certainly be used for good. If, however, you think of strength mainly as toughness of spirit or brute force of character or even just whatever it takes not to be defeated by something, I would hazard that, considered as a character trait, it is more at odds with the capacity to love and understand than otherwise. The most perceptive, compassionate people I know are people who have known defeat, who have been overwhelmed, who have broken down.

The person I fear most in life is the strong person who does not understand weakness.

'That which does not destroy us' does not make us strong. It makes us wounded. In the most tragic of circumstances, it can wound us almost beyond the ability to love. But it also true that it is our very woundedness that makes the deepest compassion and understanding possible.

The unforgivable sin is not weakness. The essential quality of our humanity is not strength. It is surely, vulnerability, which is perhaps another way of saying truth, or authenticity. As humans, we meet most profoundly at the shared table of our vulnerability. This is the centre of things. This is where we love.

I am not strong. I don’t want to be strong. I want, most of all, to love, and in order to love, I must be myself — and the one I love must be him or herself too. Telling someone to be strong is vacuous. Offering someone your acceptance whether they are strong or not —  that is a gift.

Cassandra Golds headshotCassandra Golds is a Melbourne-based author of children's fiction. Her most recent book is The Three Loves of Persimmon.

Teary woman image by Shutterstock. 

Topic tags: Cassandra Golds, pop psychology, personal development, domestic violence



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Existing comments

All the platitudes about 'strength' can grate. Like Cassandra, I don't want to be strong, I just want to be me. That means I'm someone who can't change a car tyre, who can't change a light bulb and who rarely gets things right the first time. What's most important to me are making friends smile and telling jokes to my grandchildren. Oh, and going for walks with my husband.

Pam | 14 July 2015  

Thank you for this very powerful reflection. I can relate to it completely and find it extremely encouraging. I hadn't realised how much emphasis there is in social media on "being strong", but, as Cassandra writes, our society does seem to have contempt for the weak. Value the sensitive and vulnerable. They are indeed the ones I relate to most also. Many thanks for a wonderfully encouraging piece of writing. I can't wait to share it with others.

robert | 15 July 2015  

There is only one thing in life which is essential and that is courtesy. Very often it takes great strength to show courtesy. Hopefully that strength will go to the next level which is kindness. Such a lot of crime in the name of love, one of the most abused words, therefore it is courtesy and kindness for me and a big dollop of strength to be able to always live it. Btw even when one is pretending, that too is part of oneself. We are always ourself in all our facades. There are some I will never accept, but regardless of behaviour I will always endeavour to show courtesy and the next level, kindness. Please God give me strength...

Jane | 15 July 2015  

Facebook seems to be an enormous repository of substandard thought parading as wisdom. Human beings are a curious mixture of strengths and weaknesses. That is what makes them human.

Edward Fido | 15 July 2015  

Cassandra, I particularly like your reinvention of Nietsche's quote, to "that which does not kill us makes us wounded". Much more accurate. And the other and related misuse of the language that annoys is labelling people who have committed some atrocity as cowards - so and so staged a cowardly attack and blew up 10 people including him or her self. They may or may not be cowards, but their cowardice or lack thereof is not the point. The adjective should be insane, deluded, angry, fanatical... Perhaps the writers should be described as having adjectival deprivation. I certainly would not apply that to you, Cassandra, you write beautifully.

Vin Victory | 16 July 2015  

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