Someone, I like to call him a wise man because I think he is, told me this morning that our greatest strength in life ultimately becomes our greatest weakness. He was referring to me always having to be “strong” and “hard-working”. Granted, he knows me in a professional sense, not a personal one, so he’s a bit biased. Anyway, he was commenting on how admirable it is that I can always successfully push through all of my obstacles at work/school. He asked me where in my life I picked that up from, and so I told him the following (all true!) story:
Do you remember back in the days when the powers-that-be still believed physical activity was an important part of a child’s education? Every year we had to endure the Canada Fitness Test, in which we had to prove we could do an appropriate number of sit-ups, push-ups, and chin-ups. We had to run a certain distance in a certain amount of time, and we had to do standing/running long jumps as well. Athletics was never my strong suit and I hated that part of me. I loved running around and climbing trees and being active, but I could never get anything better than the “bronze” badge in the Canada Fitness Test. In Grade 6 I said to myself “enough is enough”. I told my teacher that I wanted not simply the “gold” badge, but the “excellence” badge. Every single day after that discussion I came early into school and we practiced, and practiced, and practiced. I worked so hard. When the testing day came, I passed it with flying colors. There was a special assembly at school to hand out the badges, and the local paper was there, and my parents were there, and my teacher got up in front of everybody and told my story, concluding with the statement (or something like it anyway): “you can do anything you set your mind on”.
Despite the fact that I felt completely humiliated, I learned the lesson the teacher tried to teach me, and from that point on, I’ve known that if I always try just a little bit harder, I can accomplish what I want. It’s this belief that has got me the good marks in school, the praises from my employers, the jobs I’ve wanted, all of the amazing opportunities I’ve had in my life, etc.
But what happens if you “try harder” to accomplish something you have no control over, or something that is best just left alone? I’ve been sick in the past, and I told myself that if I had just “been stronger” I would’ve been able to fight the sickness off. If I just “tried harder” I’d be able to function well on little or no sleep. If I just “tried harder” I wouldn’t feel sad, or angry. You get the picture. Being strong and hard-working is a great way to be in most aspects of life, but if you get to the point where feel you failed yourself because didn’t work hard enough, or because you weren’t strong enough, then this strength becomes a weakness.
Here’s another example: whenever I hurt myself and ran to my dad bleeding or bruised, he’d tell me to “stick the pain in your back pocket”. It’s great advice in many ways – it was those words that got me to the top of Mt Kilimanjaro and through my minor surgery in Syria (not to mention the nasty spider bite that caused it!). But what about emotional pain? I think most would agree it’s never a good idea to bottle that up and store it in your back pocket until one day the pocket gets full and your jeans tear at the seams and your insides are bared to all who care to notice. Being able to ignore physical pain may be a great strength, but ignoring emotional pain is a great weakness.
Anyway, I realized that the opposite must also be true: our greatest weaknesses can also be our greatest strengths. I’ve always assumed my sensitivity to be my greatest weakness. I’ve gotten used to being teased, laughed at, and ridiculed for crying because a bird flew into the window and died. I’m used to friends getting upset with me because I don’t want to be in loud, noisy bars. I’m used to people telling me to “suck it up” when I get hurt too easily. I’m used to people saying “don’t take it personally”. This world is just not designed for us sensitive people. But along with this sensitivity comes empathy and a true sense of love and caring for this world and all the people in it. And that’s a strength, don’t you think?
I guess there’s always two sides to the coin.