Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Strength

Ocean Rock (Kangeroo Island, Australia)
I have a mental picture of the world’s strongest man in my head that just pops up whenever I think about “strength.”  You know – the circus strong man.  A very bulky man holding a very large barbells above his head with one hand.  He’s drawn in a way that emphasizes heft over sculpted abs and arms – the general meaning being that sheer mass = strength.  There are other cartoon characters who embody strength.  Popeye the Sailor Man – flexing his muscle after pouring a can of spinach down his throat or Bamm Bamm -- that tiny strongman  occupying a cave toddler’s body.

One can clearly see the value of physical strength on the current glut of reality competition shows.  No matter how much they try to put the brain into it – at the end of the day, most competition shows are going to boil down to physical strength and athleticism.  It’s a pretty safe bet that the team that is not physically fit is most likely NOT going to be the one that wins the million dollars. 

B&B Garden Rose (Kangeroo Island, Australia)
When they try to mix it up – those reality shows that is – they’ll bring in someone who is the exact opposite of physical strength.  The nerd.  You know that person – the girl (or guy) with glasses and a skinny little or slightly pudgy body.  The one that has probably been unable to see at a distance since he or she was 10 years old.  They are the ones people look to to take on the puzzles or the memory tests.  Mentally dexterous, they often sit out the more physical challenges.  If they have a good “social” game to go with their mental acuity, they can make it pretty far into the game but often fall short of winning.

There's another kind of strength -- inner -- that I've been thinking about a lot over the past couple of weeks.  Not sure why – but it’s a little concept that is whirling around at the edge of my consciousness.  There’s no easy picture of inner strength – let’s call it fortitude    There are fictional characters who have fortitude – Scarlett O’Hara for one.  I wouldn’t have guessed that would be so from the opening chapters of Gone with the Wind.  There, Margaret Mitchell paints Scarlet as something of an empty-minded young woman with nary a care in the world except as to how tight her corset could be pulled and whether Ashley would look her way.  Vain  Pretty. The belle of the ball.  A consummate flirt who shows no sign of inner strength.  Yet, in the end, she is the one with that fortitude, the will to survive.  She is the one who lived in today while thinking that tomorrow was on the horizon.

Shells (Qualia, Hamilton Island, Australia)
That kind of strength is something I aspire to have.  In a lot of ways, I can be a bit like Scarlet (not the vain or pretty part – goodness gracious me!).   In the book, she had a lot of self-doubt – I could not possibly do that she’d espouse but at the end of the day she did do it.  She did get out of Atlanta as it was burning and she did bring some semblance of Tara back to life after the war.  My friends and I have a favorite mental picture of Scarlett tearing down the green velvet curtains and making a dress in order to go to town.  Flashback to that Scarlett at the beginning of the novel -- who would have thought that she’d be the strong O’Hara -- the doer and the leader -- not the dead weight around someone else’s ankles. 

Scarlet is a fictional character of course – she is nothing more (or less) than the vision that Margaret Mitchell had for her when she set out to write Gone with the Wind.  I sometimes wonder if Margaret had a different Scarlet in mind – a Scarlet who remained vain and empty while someone else (say Melanie) took up the challenge and provided all the strength. 

In the real world, it seems to me that we sometimes undervalue some character traits that we should value more and that help to create that inner strength.  Take me for instance, I know that I have the following three traits:

Flapper (Kangeroo Island Australia)
  1. I don’t need to own things – I look for the best way to move an idea forward and most often it shouldn’t be me that does the moving.  In a nutshell, it’s generally not about me but rather about what WE are trying to accomplish.
  2. I have enough self-doubt for me and the people around me!  I have a constant internal dialogue that is very self-critical.  In other words, I can channel my mother and my early teachers really, really well.
  3. I am the good student – I like to get it right.  In my youth, that meant performing well on tests.  These days, it's about success in projects and programs -- creating things that make a difference.  
If I think about how we value things – one of these (good student) is pretty highly valued.  Being a good student can carry you a long way – it certainly earned me scholarships and opportunities in my earlier days and has helped me to grow and thrive as a person.  All of the early habits of a good student have stood me in good stead.  Discipline.  Focus, Ability to deconstruct and reconstruct.  These days, I usually learn because I have a problem I want to solve or an idea I want to move forward.  I look to cast my net wide and learn about things I might not be so comfortable with (e.g., how to tweet – conveying a concept in 140 characters or less is certainly a challenge for a writer).

Birds Taking Flight (Kangeroo Island,  Australia)
Self-doubt, on the other hand, is not something we value.  It’s seen as being weak, a sign of a tortured soul.  Of course there is the opposite way of stating this concept that has loads of value.  – I’m a critical thinker who is constantly looking at things (including me) from all angles to see if I can make them better.  That way of conveying the trait is strong, empowered.  At the end of the day though, self-doubt and critical thinking are pretty much one and the same thing.  Perhaps the real strength is in knowing that you have that in your character traits and taking it into account as you go about your daily life.

Then there is that third trait – the one that was first on the list above.  That not needing to own things.  Let us be clear, I am not talking about material things – I like surrounding myself with things that make me smile or comfort me or take me to another place.  Rather, I am talking about ideas and strategies – I give those things away like there is no tomorrow.   Personally, I think that is a strength – that clear focus on what the end outcome is.  At the same time, it is an Achilles heel.   I can look around my little slice of the universe and see many things that reflect my ideas, my ability to synthesize disparate strands and to think strategically.  These are good things and things that I am proud of having gotten done.  Yet, in a lot of ways – I can’t call them my own because I’ve worked so collaboratively that the “I” has disappeared in the collective of the “we.”

Origin Unknown
So how is this a weakness you are probably thinking?  The trait in and of itself is not a weakness – that is for sure.  The Achilles heel is in the counting coup phase of things.  There is a reason we have an ego.  That part of us that says this is me, this is mine, this is what I did.  It helps us along in life in all sorts of ways.  It boils down to owning what you’ve achieved.   It’s difficult to do that when you’ve given it away and said – here you go, take this idea, you be the person that advances it, and I’ll support and guide you along the way.  At the end of the day, I can own what we did but it's harder to discern what I did.

More important than the relative value of the three traits may be how they come together -- along with a host of other things -- to form one's inner fiber.  I guess that intersection is what humans are all about and what makes us such complicated creatures.  And, at the end of the day I think these three traits are a part of what makes me strong.





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