Strength, Part 1: Hard Versus Strong

A woman stands with a man flexing his arms behind her, so that it looks like his arms are growing out of her shoulders.
Image
by vaibhav ahuja via Creative Commons on Flickr.

On a series I just watched, the main character’s mom criticizes her adult daughter’s cold way of speaking to her family. “You’re very hard,” the mom says. “You think it’s strength. It’s not the same thing.”

In our culture, we often use hard and strong interchangeably. For men, being able to get an erection (“get hard”) is equated with being a real man—with strength. We describe people with strong muscles using metaphors from machinery and car racing: someone is “torqued” or “ripped,” and their belly is a “six-pack” (all imagery relating to hard objects, from a race car to beer cans).

So what’s the difference between hard and strong, emotionally speaking?

If you’re genuinely a hard person, you don’t care for others, or even register when your words or actions cause them pain. You shield your own wounds by numbing yourself. You build walls that keep you safe, and keep others away.

Strength, on the other hand, involves vulnerability. The researcher Brené Brown has made the study of vulnerability her life’s work. The Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön describes enlightenment as the slow, repetitive process of taking our armor off.

What can we do when we feel the world hardening us?

How can we keep taking off our armor, when others carry such sharp and stealthy weapons?

No answers here, people. Just stuff I’m thinking over, in these days of a terrifying presidential race, when nothing’s true unless you tag it with the correct emoji, and the air is thick with the ferric odor of irony.*

Over the next few posts, I’m going to be sorting through some ideas about the various ways people can be strong. Chime in if you have ideas. We all need all the help we can get.

*I shoplifted those last 5 words from the Stephen King novel The Dark Half.

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