Saturday, June 17, 2006

This will be my service to the world

Think of the strong people in your life. Go ahead, actually name the names in your mind. They don't have to be people you know well, just people that you would use the word "strong" if you had to choose three words to describe them. Who have you thought of? Is it your mom, the crossing guard for the school by your house? Is it your son, your accountant? Is it your best friend, your third grade teacher? Who are the people that seem wise to you? Who are the people who have faced terrible hardship without breaking? Who seems like they could? Who are the old souls in your life?

Do you have a few faces in your mind?

I want to tell you something about those people. I don't know if they will thank me for telling you their secret, but I wish that someone would tell the people in my life who think that I'm strong what is really going on.

The truth is, although we are often admired for our strenth, we did not choose to be this way and do not deserve your admiration. At least, a good majority of us didn't. For most of us, we cannot think of any other option than to appear to the world as strong. Most of us started when we were very young, before we could be held accountable for our responses. Whether in self-defense, or to make our family laugh, or to be a complement to a sibling or parent, the personality that worked was a strong one. Whether things went our way or not, events felt not-wrong when we had been fierce or stubborn or stoic. So we kept doing it. Wordsworth writes, "The Child is father of the Man," which means that as we grow, each response in an interaction adds another brick to the building that we are creating with our lives. The personality that we live in as adults is determined by the behavior and experiences of our childhoods. Strength becomes habit. It comes to a point that to show weakness in anything other than a controlled fashion (crying in the safety of your mother's or husband's arms, starting a difficult conversation by admitting a mistake so that your companion cannot use it against you) doesn't even occur to us. If we start to consider different responses to the hardships and joys of life, it feels itchy and we stop considering before we even realize that we began.

So, we are not necessarily better or more successful for being strong because strong people really have no choice in the matter, although certainly it seems to be a prerequisite for heroes to have that word be one of the three. Mother Theresa, Rosa Parks, Chief Joseph, Albert Einstein. But they didn't choose to be strong, either. They just did big things with their strength.

But the bigger truth is that strong people - people who don't take any shit, people that can't be knocked down by tragedy, people that make hard choices and follow through on them - strong people need just as much kindness and help as everyone else. I'm not talking about the help that a disciple, follower, employee lends to his or her leader to accomplish a common goal. I mean that they need help in being strong.

We all know that the poor and the poor in spirit need our help. Random acts of kindness to those who we see are struggling are good choices, whether with the car door because his arms are filled with groceries or with an anonymous donation to a family struggling to make the rent. Those opportunities present themselves to us on a regular basis and it is good and right to take advantage of them. We all know that it is not the physical result of the help (an open car door, a place to live for another month) but the sense of hope that we give to strangers that they are not alone that is the best result of these acts of kindness. Additionally, we all hope that we would be able to risk our comforts and security to help the helpless. We think we might be able to tell our boss that he needs to treat the immigrant support staff legally and decently or we'll report him. We hope that we would run in front of the bus to save the blind man.

But who realizes that the sassy girl in the office is aching for you to tell her boss that he's being unfair? (Because let's be honest about the fact that my motivation here is personal.) Who thinks that the neighborhood grandma who goes to all of the community meetings to demand more police presence really wants to be able to skip a week if someone would only go in her place? Who even suspects that the teacher that forgives his students each night and accepts them back with open arms every morning wants someone to take the worst of them out behind the shed and teach them the lesson so it sticks (metaphorically, of course) so that he doesn't have anything to forgive anymore.

It's harder to see the random acts of kindness that we can do to help the strong and easy to believe that they don't need acts of sacrifice.

But they need the help. And that is the biggest truth that I can reveal. Oh, they'll keep doing what they're doing and doing it well. If they never get help, they still won't take any shit, they will continue to withstand soul-crushing tragedy, they make the right choices without thought for what they really want. But they do it without the sense of hope that comes from knowing that they are not alone in their struggles.

Please do not overestimate us. Please look for situations in which you would want help in the lives of those that seem strong enough not to need it.

Even Atlas got to give up his burden to visiting heores every once in awhile.

You don't need to be strong enough to hold up the sky for us. But if you could slap that mosquito on my ankle, I'd be a little less lonely.

1 comment:

Evenewra said...

Three thoughts:

1. The first person I thought of when I considered strength is someone who claims not to really NEED people. She lives far away from them and likes nothing better but to be alone. On the other hand, acts of kindness truly move her. She's always been a mystery to me but I insist on making her my friend (and she receives it) instead of leaving her to her loner self. (It helps that we live on opposite sides of the country so I don't have to press often, and we are about 30 years apart in age which makes for a different relationship.)

2. As for strong people, when I was living in my hometown and surviving cancer, people saw me as strong. Now that I'm just a teacher (a damn good one when it comes to listening to other people's children, I might add) in a strange town of people who mostly are money-makers rather than social servants, I'm not sure if it even occurs to people to see me as strong. (I'm not sure it even occurs to people to see me, period.)

3. My terrible habit throug life has been to see amazing (or strong or whatever) people with whom I wanted to be friends because they were happy or creative or sincere or whatever, but I didn't attempt the friendship. I always said, "They have enough friends. They neither need nor want me." I actually finally said this to one of them many years ago and I was shocked to see how shocked they were that this was my view. Somehow this seems similar to what you are saying. Of course for me, it was all about not seeing myself as friendship-worthy.