Lesson #35: Spinach and Muscles Won’t Make You Strong

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Recently I attended the graduation of South Carolina’s military recruits at Fort Jackson. Every year 50,000 graduates complete the ten week boot camp before moving on to serve our country.

Strength. This was the message of the day. Army strong. Learn to follow commands, do so selflessly, and without questioning authority. Recognize where you exist in the social hierarchy. Do not show emotions, for emotions will slow you down. Obey quietly.

The values exhibited by the army are by no doubt extreme, but yet they are enacted, to a lesser degree, every day in society. We are a culture built on hidden identities and strength in what we do not share. We take pride in appearances and the ability to keep up an image. We are taught that strength is controlling who we are. That strength is only expressing emotions associated with success. That strength is an absence of expression, a comfort and willingness to live happily within the lines.

The truth however is that life is messy. Emotions affect us all. We all live through tough times. These emotions do not make us weak. In fact what would happen if we chose to see expression as the epitome of strength itself.

Strength is honesty. Strength is being brave enough to express the full range of emotions that we are bound to live through. Strength is saying I’m lonely. Strength is admitting that even as a strong independent thinker it’s nice to start your day with someone by your side. Strength is creating boundaries that benefit you. Strength is letting your voice be heard and not letting the response affect how you see yourself. Strength is the ability to be vulnerable. The realization that vulnerability creates connection. The understanding that connection is what fuels us. The knowledge that connection only happens when we share honestly and listen with an empathetic ear.

Deeply engrained in our society are understandings of strength that are slowly destroying us. Is it any wonder that countless reports have identified the United States as the most depressed country in the world? What would happen if we flipped our definitions of strength and weakness on their heads? What would happen if we became more honest? More real? What if there was no more shame? What if we responded with empathy instead of fear? What if we chose to connect instead of building walls? Imagine how strong we would be then.

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