There’s a lot of confusion about what it means to be ‘strong’ and arguably this is one of the causes of so much violence, oppression of women and minority groups, and also frustration and alienation of men—from one another and from themselves.
Several things have led me to thinking about this theme. Recently I bought a wonderful book of reflections by a whole bunch of women who are the later stages of life, called Older and Bolder: Life after 60. Written by Renata Singer, the book draws upon the life situations of 28 women who have found a new independence in accepting that they are older, but also more free to be and do what they choose—despite losses such as the end of a marriage or career, sometimes death of a partner and so forth. There is great pathos, humour and much wisdom in these pages. Older, maybe in some ways weaker, and yet bolder and more able to be themselves. I’d suggest stronger, in a lot of ways.
Last week at the funeral of a dear friend, well into his eighties, I talked also with one of his very long term colleagues. This man, too, has been a pastor and something of a trend setter, like a beacon out ahead of many others, shining the path for us to follow. For me he has been a hero and I’ve been honoured to follow him in a number of situations. Now, though, he says he is weak. His mind and voice are still clear, but his body and strength are failing him. He said as much, as another friend and I shared with him our collective grief. In that conversation, though, I said to him that for me and for many others he is a guiding light, (etc, etc)—but he said, ‘No, not now, I am weak …’ Then I suggested to him that even in our human frailties there is strength: for here we were, two younger people but we simply would not have been here, would not have followed the pathways of careers, in teaching and pastoral care, if not for his teaching and his inspiring example when we were younger, and indeed ever since. My friend warmly agreed: and then our dear friend quoted the apostle Paul, ‘When I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Corinthians 12. 8 -10). What we were saying is not a denial of our human frailty and ultimate death. Rather, it was an affirmation that amidst all that, together we have a sustaining presence and hope: the mutual care, support and love that comes from a shared journey of faith; the hope that our life is more than a physical journey from birth to maturity and then decline; the conviction that we are more than individuals. We are a body, more than our individual bodies. We are alive in God, and God in us: what we call ‘the body of Christ’, and as we live and die, nonetheless this ‘body’ lives beyond our death, even as it was before our birth.
That was a truly beautiful moment of grace, as we shared that sense of strength even in our grief and struggle. It will not get easier for our older friend, nor indeed for any of us and those with whom we walk day by day.
Later, I began to think something about what has been lost, when we come to this stage of life: we say we are ‘weaker’. Are we really? I reckon in many ways what is lost is the bravado by which we act and assert ourselves, as if we are in fact strong in ourselves. The world needs us, we seem to imply. People should take notice of us, because of our bold assertions or our firm policies and so forth. In business and politics this is often called ‘strong leadership’. But so often that means ‘vehement’, or even that the leader is able to overcome opposition, preventing or putting down any other views or directions or initiatives. Is that really strong?
Our culture so easily confuses ‘power’ and ‘strength’, by which we really mean control. Those who are strong and powerful are said to be those who can control others and of course themselves.
I think there is another kind of strength altogether. I believe we shared that sense of strength in that conversation at our friend’s funeral.
In this view, we are not strong when we assert ourselves and our powers, or convictions, or push others and their views aside. Rather, we are strong together: and even more so when we are able to be honest together about our fears, our struggles and regrets, and so forth. To be in the presence of one another’s sheer humanity, without pretence and without pushing anything, just being there: that I think takes strength.
Even more, to accept struggle, resistance, suspicion or even rejection—and to do so without retaliation, hatred and violence: that takes immense strength. It’s been called the power of the powerless: and yet it is not powerlessness, but rather the exercise of a remarkable power. It’s the power of love over hate and patience over violence. No one can have this power or strength alone. It is something we have together: solidarity.
It is in community, in sharing our life together that we can be ‘weak but strong’. It is this life together that will sustain us in our older years and into our dying, even as it was this same life that first allowed us to thrive and grow.
It was only in this middle years (all too soon, unfortunately, so early in our schooling) that we were deluded into thinking that we must be individually ‘strong’ and preferably not need anyone else. What utter stupidity! All that did for us was to breed frustration, and so often pretence: before others and often ourselves. It is a delusion of strength, just because we can control others, or things around us, for a time.
Thank God when events and the passing of the years help us to accept that alone we are truly weak and un-able. But together we are strong, in the life we share. It is the life together, the life of love and compassion, friendship and care, laughter and grief, all of it—life together, that is strong.