I have been getting irritated by the word “strong” recently. My frustration is entirely personal, and I think it has to do with the unhealthy associations I make with the word. We recognise strength when someone has dealt with a challenge alone, or we isolate it from the support that made survival or growth possible. “Strong” then becomes a stand-in for perseverance, independence, and emotional stoicism. A lot of the connections I am making likely stem from my upbringing, where being strong was considered essential, and the most important attribute boys could have. But there are a lot of things I would rather be than strong:
First, I’d like to be emotionally responsible. I want to recognise that my feelings are valid and learn how to process them by knowing who or what I need to help cope. Honestly, I have a harmful preference for being alone when I am upset because I value the introspection, but also because it is tough to be vulnerable. On the one hand, I have learned a lot using this strategy like how to work independently through uncomfortable or unsettling experiences, but it has also become a bit of a crutch.
I would like to be mutually supportive because I don’t turn to people when I need support, and that is a problem. Support networks rely on a mutual exchange because, without it, they can become burdensome or undermine the solidarity there with exhaustion, resentment, or feelings of exploitation. I prefer listening because of a variety of reasons, but I have a hard time talking about what is bothering me or my painful experiences. I am cautious about asking others to tax themselves emotionally on my behalf and tend to avoid it altogether. The thing is those moments of vulnerability and support are the foundations for lasting healthy relationships.
I want to be patient and understanding because those traits will foster positivity. The world we move through is demanding enough, and there is no shortage of unexpected delays, expenses, or problems. I do not want to contribute to anyone’s stress and if that means having to deal with a moment of frustration so someone else can continue focusing on what is troubling them that is fair. However, for example, this made my experience teaching hard; I was torn between enforcing stricter deadlines (with the hope of encouraging time management skills) and acknowledging that shit happens. Students have a lot to deal with, and my job was not to make their lives harder, it was to teach them skills or information they could find valuable and appropriate.
I want to be softer because it is lonely otherwise. I have a difficult time letting people in or letting them stay there. I know I don’t have to have an abundant number of friends to be happy, and I prefer having a few that will challenge me when I fuck up. I want people I can talk to about subjects that I am less confident in so I can make mistakes and learn.
I want to be educated but not in a strictly academic sense. I want to be open to new information and unlearn things that are outdated, problematic, or untrue. I want to be able to communicate with people who have different backgrounds instead of strictly other artists or academics because the language we use in those circles is confusing. I have felt lost in a conversation because I was working so hard to break down the words people were using. I have spent semesters in classrooms where I struggled to keep up with the discussion because I lacked the knowledge so many others had and were confidently referencing. It sucks when you do not understand, and others pass judgement for it, or you feel unwelcome because of your vocabulary. I like writing, but I know some of the language I use is not accessible. That is something I want to improve because while art is subjective, the statements and text describing it should be helpful instead of a barricade. Theory and history are great but they can be written in ways that are easier to digest.
I want to be forgiving, which is much harder in practice than I would like to admit. I am not advocating that everyone should be forgiving because that is not my decision to make, but I recognise that I can be pretty harsh when I end a relationship. Something I have learned is that forgiveness does not have to look like things returning to how they were or letting someone back in. Forgiveness can be reaching a point where what was said or done elicits no response. This realisation has been beneficial, especially regarding trauma, because it liberated me of feeling guilty or petty when, in reality, this strategy helped me move on. People have hurt me that I was close to that I just do not want to be close to again. Similarly, I have hurt people that will be better off without me, and that is okay.
And there are plenty of other qualities I would rather be than strong like generous, compassionate, kind, honest, or passionate. These traits are not mutually exclusive, but the word “strong” carries so many implications for me that I would prefer to avoid it. It has been used to praise the results of unhealthy walls I have built, boundaries I have failed to set, and only encouraged my harmful coping mechanisms. However, “strong” is a crucial word for a lot of people, especially those who are denied their value, importance, and humanity regularly. It is just not good for me.