To Be Strong Is To Show Our Weakness
Being a guy sucks sometimes.
I mean, aside from having to constantly monitor all these fragile dangly parts that we absolutely positively must keep out of the way of zippers, rogue knees, and hand rails (although that last one really only applies if we’re doing rail slides on a skateboard), we’re also trained from an early age that we’re not supposed to show any emotions whatsoever.
“Real men don’t cry!”
What. The. Hell?!? What if I need to let out a good sobbing fit every once in a while? What if I want to bawl when a bleeding, limping Bruce Willis throws the German terrorist who speaks with a thick German accent (even though he can clearly fake an American accent) out a 20th-story window and reunites with his estranged wife?
What am I supposed to do about that?
I have to admit, I was a teenage drama queen. In my angst-ridden senior year of high school, I once punched out our kitchen window. My parents were surprisingly supportive of my emotional outburst, not to mention everything else (I thought) I was going through at the time. Even worse, I actually wore my bandages proudly to school the next day. It was as though I needed to advertise how messed up my personal life was (it wasn’t), and how badass I was (I wasn’t) through my ownage of a set of glass panes.
Seriously, I was Emo 15 years before the term Emo had been coined. I was a miserable wreck, suffering from a miserable life. And I wore my plight proudly, as Atlas must have done when he bore the weight of the world on his shoulders for all those billions of years.
It wasn’t until I took an adolescent psychology class years later that I realized how typical my behavior was. My life–and all the problems that came packaged with it–wasn’t that miserable or unique. In fact, my anger was pretty much par for any teenager. And I certainly wasn’t a badass for nearly severing an artery in my hand because I couldn’t keep my emotions in check.
And no, I’m not going to explain why I was such an emotional mess. It was that trivial, and I was that melodramatic. Just imagine any typical issue any typical teenager probably goes through, and I’m sure you’ll figure it out.
In recent years, though, my emotional pendulum has swung perhaps too far in the opposite direction. After embracing my angst with such glee while in high school, in my late 20s, I finally decided that it was time to be a real man and dispense with the emotional toolbaggery.
And so, several of my recent relationships have included words to the following effect, as muttered by a frustrated girlfriend:
“I wish you were more emotive sometimes. You’re always so damned stoic.”
Yet, I like that I’m stoic. I’m proud of the fact that few people and few things can faze me nowadays. I’m proud of the fact that I rarely lose my temper or spew my emotions on someone. I’m proud of this new-found manliness that I’ve uncovered, and of how strong I am today.
At the same time, there have been a couple girlfriends who’ve gotten me to open up, whom I’ve shown my vulnerabilities to. Re-examining these relationships, I had a minor epiphany:
It takes a lot more emotional strength to let myself be vulnerable than just to close myself off. It’s much harder to talk about my feelings with a girlfriend than just to maintain my stoicism all the time.
I realize now that “showing weakness” does not equal “weak.” In fact, it takes a ton of strength to reveal my weaknesses, to open up to someone intimate. It’s hard to tell another person about my wildest dreams or my deepest fears. It’s hard to tell another person how much I would miss her if I were to lose her. So, if these things are so hard to say, what could possibly be weak about saying them?
Of course, there’s a flip side to all this. Revealing my vulnerability to someone doesn’t mean that I allow myself to become completely dependent on her, to start basing my entire existence on her presence, to pine for her when she leaves town for a week. Because, god damn, have I made that mistake, too.
It’s okay to cry in front of my girlfriend once in a while. It’s not okay to cry in front of my girlfriend every day. And, as the cliché goes, therein lies the rub….
To me, showing vulnerability to a significant other is kind of like holding up a barbell with bent arms. It’s easy to just let the entire weight drop to the floor. It’s also relatively easy to lock out my arms in full extension.
It’s not so easy to hold that midway point.
And this is how emotional strength works. To me, being weak is unleashing all of our suffering in a constant barrage of emotional vomit. Being weak is also holding everything in and never showing one ounce of emotion.
No, if we truly want to be strong, we can’t live our life at the emotional extremes, either dumping everything on our partner or just cramming it all down into our innards. We have to find that perfect balance of controlling ourselves, yet being open and communicative with our partner. We have to find that just-right, Goldilocks balance of emotion and control. And we have to hold that barbell with our arms bent… forever.
To me, that’s what it means to be strong, whether we’re man or woman.