Thursday, June 1, 2017

What is Strength?

      I am coming to see that we need to change our entire approach to understanding and responding to one another's struggles.  We need to understand emotional pain, mental illness, and emotional sensitivity from a very different perspective.  The journey to make this change in our thinking is very slow.  We mostly still see those who struggle with chronic emotional pain as weak, rather than as the incredibly strong people they are, carrying daily burdens of pain and facing each day with courage.  We also still think that what people who are sensitive and easily injured by bullies need to do is just "develop a thicker skin".  Both of these are seriously problematic.  Both of these ways of seeing the world function within a very individualistic, non-feeling model that says that the problems we have are our own, that emotions are to be distrusted and squelched when possible, and that when someone is a victim and someone is a perpetrator, that it is the victim who needs to adjust and change. This world-view supports the idea that we should be in our heads rather than our hearts; it places our hearts and our feelings in a subservient position to our thinking; it elevates an ideal of cold independent distance over a world view that says we are interdependent and that our feelings have their own wisdom, one that should be attended to.  If we want a gentler, kinder, more caring world, that has to start by listening to the wisdom of our feelings; it must recognize that we are created to be in community, and that means understanding that we all need one another (and not just people, but all of creation) to be whole and healthy.
      I've written before that people who live with and function with the chronic pain of mental illness (depression, bipolar, etc) are some of the strongest people I know.  This continues to be reinforced for me as I talk with more and more folk who go through each day carrying the emotional (and physical because the emotional pain is also physically oppressive) burdens they carry simply because they have to: for their kids, for their families, for their God, for whatever reason they choose to move forward each day.
    Unfortunately, it has also been reinforced for me that most people still believe that those who struggle with mental illness are somehow weak.  Part of this belief stems from the misguided thinking that says that if someone asks for help, or calls for support, that they are weak. We should be able to walk this path alone, on our own, without the care or support of others, apparently.  Again, this emphasizes an individualistic model in which people who reach out and need each other are not strong enough to walk alone. It fails to recognize that we all need each other, sometimes more and sometimes less, to help us walk this journey called life.
     Another example: I read a recent article that said that when people have been hurt or affected by cruelty of others they are often told to "buck up", to "get over it", to "develop a thicker skin."  This author was saying that actually, going through the pain, discussing it, and working it out is a much healthier model.  Talking about the things that affect us, that hurt us, sharing and working it through with other people is a better way of healing ourselves and others.  Do we really aim to become people who are without sensitivity?  Without empathy?  Without the ability to care and be affected by and touched by the thoughts, feelings and actions of those around us?  Do we really think that we should permit and tacitly condone meanness because it toughens us and that the issue when people are being treated cruelly is with the one being victimized rather than the one perpetrating the act?  With our children, we have advanced in this area more quickly than with adults. We are coming to see that bullying is a problem and that children need to be taught to share their experiences of unkindness so that all of us can grow and all of us can work harder to find the bullies, confront the mean behavior and change it so that those kids do not grow up to be villains.  But we often still say to adults who are being treated with unkindness, "you need to get a tougher exterior."  Actually, tougher exteriors are not a good goal unless we hope for an insensitive world of tough but unfeeling people.
      I strongly resonated with the author's words on this. Just as I believe it is not about developing a tougher skin, but about working through the pain when someone is unkind, I also believe that when people ask for help because they are suffering emotionally, that this too needs to be recognized not as weakness, but as strength.  It takes courage and trust to ask for help.  It takes self-awareness to know when one is carrying burdens that are too much to bear on one's own.  It takes wisdom to discern who will be helpful to the one struggling and who can be relied on to stand by us in times of trial.
      These are two examples of ways in which our thinking around all of this needs to change.  We have to let go of the belief that we walk this planet as individuals separate and independent from each other.  In reality we need each other at every step of the way.  It is not just a trade model that causes interaction, but a deep seated human need for community.  We have been created as relational, interdependent beings.
       Strength for me is the ability to recognize our needs, to be able to be honest about our feelings, and to risk a community of friends to support one another in our daily struggles.  Strength for me is the ability to walk forward every day when things are at their worse for whatever reason, simply because we have to.  Strength is claiming the wisdom of our feelings and our sensitivities for identifying when something needs to change.
      We won't be able to change the thinking of the world around feelings, independence and strength overnight.  But if we can start with ourselves and our own communities, teaching one another to respect and honor feelings, standing with each other in our relationships, recognizing the strength it takes to ask for help and to walk the journeys, then we have made a step forward. Because again, everything we do affects one another.  The change therefore that starts with the thinking of one person can affect us all for the better.