Lately, I've been thinking a lot about strength and what it means to be strong. This post was originally percolating in my head late last summer, after a long talk over coffee with one of my dear friends about the dating scene and the personas that people (especially men) are taught to project in order to woo a potential mate. We agreed that what was often presented as strength (machismo! Lack of emotion! Bulging muscles!) were rather unappealing to us and that what we perceived as the characteristics associated with true strength often fell more along the lines of confidence, authenticity, and vulnerability. This conversation lodged itself in my brain and continued to niggle at me, eventually making its way into a half-written blog post that I never got around to finishing and has long since been deleted. But as I consider my life path and the obstacles that face me, I find that the concept of strength is, once again, occupying my thoughts.
Sometimes I feel like my entire life has been spent in pursuit of this elusive virtue, a journey made only more difficult by the fact that my definition of what makes a person "strong" is constantly changing. When I was younger, strength meant one of two things: the ability to lift heavy objects and not letting your emotions show, neither of which I was particularly capable of. Physically, I was tiny, nonathletic, and prone to getting hurt with even the slightest amount of physical exertion; I was the person who managed to break my finger on the first day of our basketball unit in gym class and had to sit on the bleachers and read for two months while I healed. (As far as I was concerned, it was the best two months of P.E. ever...) Emotionally, what I can now identify as anxiety manifested as extreme sensitivity, giving me an almost paralyzing fear of anything that contained what could even remotely be considered scary content and a tendency to cry whenever I felt the least bit hurt or overwhelmed. As you might imagine, this made me something of an easy target for my peers. Lord of the Flies does not exaggerate in its portrayal of the viciousness of children unless otherwise curbed by an adult's influence, and I was often subjected to a variety of teasing and bullying. In those moments, there was nothing I wanted more than to be able to shrug off the barbs and taunts of my companions, to watch their words glance off my impenetrable armor while inside my feelings remained protected and unscathed. As I got older, I learned to hide my true feelings when they landed a blow, to smile and project the image of indifference, feigning strength even when I didn't feel it. It felt like a victory, but the previous years had already left their mark.
Eventually, my lack of reaction combined the natural maturation that comes with age put an end to those attacks, but the walls had been built; vulnerability was no longer an option. However, growing up also taught me that strength was far more complex than I'd thought as a child, and as I found myself in the world of adult interactions and relationships, I discovered that emotional walls often did more harm than good. It's difficult to connect with someone on an authentic level when you're constantly holding part of yourself back, and it's exhausting to constantly keep up a front that doesn't reflect what you're truly feeling. True strength, it began to seem, was allowing yourself to be vulnerable without giving others the power to destroy you. So I was forced to begin the arduous journey of dismantling the walls I'd built, opening up, and learning to trust people again, even if that meant giving them the power to hurt me. It took many years (and a lot of therapy), but little by little I was able to let my guard down and stop hiding parts of myself around my nearest and dearest, whether that meant openly geeking out about the new Hobbit movie when it first came out (to the point where I was taking photos of/with every advertisement for it that I saw) or allowing myself to break down in front of my boyfriend when I learned of my grandfather's death without worrying what he would think of me. Things that should have come easily but, at the time, felt monumental to me.
These days, I feel fairly comfortable being myself around people, although I still have trouble crying in front of people outside of my family/partnership (old habits die hard...). Most of my friends will tell you I'm a ridiculous, overly-enthusiastic nerd whose passion makes me equally excitable and easy to anger. I still wear my heart on my sleeve, although I've gotten a lot better at taking the hits without breaking. But now I find my strength is being tested in new ways, as I throw myself fully into the uncertain waters of both acting and self-driven employment, both of which involve a lot of rejection or, more often than not, no word at all. I never expected this to be an easy road to walk, but some days the responsibility and doubt gets to be so overwhelming that I feel certain it will push me down, down until I am crushed under its weight, unable to get back on my feet and dust myself off. In these moments I wonder what on earth I was thinking, starting not just one but two new careers all at once. I'm not complaining, and I certainly don't regret my decision - even in my darkest moments I am sure that leaving my traditional job to create a more flexible life for myself was the right thing to do - but it can be daunting, especially when so much of the my daily tasks consists of paperwork (applications, resumes, emails, cover letters, advertisements, etc.) rather than the work I truly love to do. Such is the reality of the world, but it can still be a bummer.
It should surprise no one that in those moments I turn to my tarot cards (I feel like my catchphrase should be "there's a card for that"). The archetypes depicted can provide an image or a mantra of sorts for me to hold onto, a reminder that everything is cyclical, that I have gotten through difficulties before and will do so again. In tarot, the Strength card represents patience, conviction, and control, and it's often portrayed as a figure taming a lion (it should also surprise no one that this imagery appeals to me greatly). I use this as a reminder that self-confidence doesn't mean I have to march around waving a banner as I trumpet how great I am or even that I have to feel awesome about myself 100% of the time. Sometimes it just means knowing that I can handle the bumps that I'm currently experiencing in the road for one more day. When I think of strength in these terms, it no longer feels like a virtue I must pursue but rather a promise of a quality that I already possess: the ability to tame my fears and push forward, inch by inch.
So this is me being strong. My life isn't all sunshine and daisies, and sometimes I seriously question what I kind of mess I've gotten myself into, but at the end of the day I'm still standing, secure in my convictions that I'm doing what's best for myself. This week I've had three friends tell me that my pursuit of my dreams inspires them and makes me brave. Truthfully, I don't often feel that way myself (if anything, I wonder if it makes me foolish), but it's reassuring to hear that they think so. And sometimes, the bravest, strongest thing I can do is admit to myself and to the rest of the world that this is hard, it's overwhelming, and it's scary as hell. But I'm not going to let that stop me, and I hope that you find the strength to keep standing in the face of your obstacles, too. After all, I'm not the only one with the ability to tame lions.