The folly of rejecting weakness

There have been many approaches to positively reframe the way people view mental illness. One way, which I notice to be growing in popularity, is to distinguish mental illness from weakness: needing help doesn’t make you weak, needing to take psychiatric meds doesn’t make you weak, nor does needing a therapist, and so on. For instance, I learned from this Washington Post article about the power of “coming out” with mental illness that #sicknotweak has become a popular hashtag on Twitter.

But I find efforts to completely dissociate mental illness from weakness rather unsettling. While this approach may succeed in destigmatizing mental illness, doesn’t it do so at the expense of adding to the stigma surrounding weakness?

(I typically  hate the practice of pedantically and uncharitably picking apart the well-intentioned, so I hope what I’m about to say doesn’t fall in that category.)

My first thought is that our implicit rejection of weakness can inadvertently marginalize those who do not have the chance to be “cured”of their particular brand of weakness (for example, permanent physical disability, intellectual disability, and degenerative diseases).

I suppose the knee-jerk response is, once again, to affirm that those conditions aren’t weaknesses. But it often takes a long time for many people to accept or believe that for themselves. I wish we could go a step further and place no pressure on anyone to feel or identify as strong when they in fact feel weak.

With mental illness becoming a part of my life to be reckoned with, there are many periods during which I do feel weak. After all, when all this first started unfolding during my college days, all I could see was personal weakness after personal weakness after personal weakness. I recently came to the conclusion that there perhaps can be great relief in a radically different approach, that is, instead of being told that you’re not weak, to be reminded that it’s okay to be weak. Only then would sufferers, family, friends, and caregivers, have common ground from which to begin the work of acceptance and change.

It’s not that weakness is something to be bragged about. But it’s not abnormal. It comes in many variations and forms, and no one is without one. We may try to distinguish between excusable weakness and inexcusable weakness — the former are those beyond our control, and the latter within our control — but is that really possible?

Yes, it’s not my fault that I have my diagnosis, but it’s never just about having a condition. Any given condition is also wrapped up in how we react to it, how we cope with it, and what we do with it — facets that are more or less within our control.

I admit that they way I reacted and failed to tackle my condition head-on during the first few years reflected personal weakness. I compare myself to the saints and see that I lack their admirable virtue of bearing pain, suffering, and anguish with grace. It’s only with this acknowledgment of personal weakness that I could begin to work on changing that. If I think that my illness renders me too weak to live well, then there’s nothing I can do about it. If I think that it’s my personal weakness that prevents me from living well with my illness, then I can eventually muster up the willpower to train my mental, emotional, and spiritual muscle such that I can still thrive under that pressure.

Perhaps in the sports arena weakness is something to be hidden, lest it be exploited by one’s opponent. But in our general foray from the start to the end of our earthly lives, the rules are different. Here, it is a given that we are all weak. We succumb under our weaknesses not when others can see them, but when we believe there is no transcending them. When we believe that they rob us dignity. That we are somehow less valuable because of our infirmities. Or that our lives aren’t worth living if we have to find a different way of living it.

What are we to do with our weaknesses, then? Besides denying and concealing it, society doesn’t really teach us many other options. The invitation to acknowledge and soak in them is not at all intuitive. But I’ve learned through a messy few years of trial and error to resist the temptation to run away from where it most hurts, or where we are most ashamed. To not be afraid to be broken down in those uncertain encounters so we can be rebuilt.

Ink; “If we only knew the precious treasure hidden in infirmities, we would receive them with the same joy with which we receive the greatest benefits.” –St. Vincent de Paul

Weakness and strength can coexist. In fact, isn’t it only in weakness that we can find strength? Admitting weakness is strong. Struggling through weakness is strong. Overcoming weakness is strong. Finding a way to live with weakness is strong. Pouring yourself out for others in spite of weakness is so incredibly strong.

And if you’re a fellow Christian, consider if we have any reason to deny weakness.  Do we not look at the crucifix to see Christ embodying weakness? Publicly hanging from a torture device, bloodied from head to toe, with bones out of joint, there we see the depth of His human weakness meet the pinnacle of His divine strength. Divine strength says not my will but Yours, and it also says into Your hands I commend my spirit. What appeared to be shameful weakness turned out to be the hard work of amazing, redemptive love.

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Weakness and suffering cease to be senseless torment when offered up to God. We’re asked not to bury them, and instead place them into the loving hands of God. There, like the five loaves and two fishes, they will be immeasurably multiplied as gifts for His kingdom. This means they also cease to be sources of shame. We’ve heard the timeless refrain:

Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weakness, in order that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

–St. Paul the Apostle (2 Cor 12:8-10)

Let’s not reject weakness, but instead allow it to spur us to be stronger: in tenacity, resilience, faith, compassion, and love.

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17 thoughts on “The folly of rejecting weakness”

  1. As someone who has recently had to take a medical leave of absence from my job due to my bipolar anf PTSD making even 4 hours a day impossible, I can totally relate to this.

    Do I feel weak for having take time to heal? Damn straight I do. But you’re right. Admitting that I have that weakness was an important act of strength to do what I have to do to take care of myself.

    Our illnesses/ conditions may give us weaknesses. But they don’t make US weak. Weakness is in how we face them. Or don’t.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fabulous post! Deny weakness? Where does God come into play then? I applaud you for challenging the view that we must deny weakness – because the reality is we all feel weak at times and there is no shame in that. It is part of our humanity. And I LOVE the pic of Jesus on the cross with God behind him….powerful pic!

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  3. Beautifully written! I share your view that denying weakness would only compound the stigma, and I love how you wrote that we instead need to accept weakness and send the message that “it’s okay to feel weak”. You make a very interesting point that weakness and strength can coexist. In a sense, just like we wouldn’t know happiness unless we know sadness, we wouldn’t know strength unless we know weakness. I really enjoyed reading this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s a great thought–that in an ideal world, the weak should feel no pressure to be strong. I’ve never heard it phrased exactly like that before, but I really agree. That’s why the concept of “resilience” sometimes bothers me, because the very act of defining some people as “resilient” makes other people “non-resilient,” as if they were deficient in some way. I think “resilience” should be viewed as relative because every person perceives their world so differently.

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    1. Absolutely, we often mean well, but perhaps sometimes TOO well, such that we are wishing the impossible. For instance there’s much pressure to “have a good day” when really, many of us know we won’t be having a terribly good day. I appreciate being reminded that I can simply “have a day”, and take it one day at a time, no pressure to have a splendid one. 😉

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      1. I love that! “Have a day!” I should walk around saying that to people 😂 Same thing with telling people “I’m fine” or “I’m good.” There is such as thing as wishing TOO well. It’s hurtful when people just want you to be positive when you can’t ignore the hardships you’re going through. For me it’s about having both at once…maybe seeing something positive, but always acknowledging difficult feelings too.

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  5. You are wise beyond your years. You should have been at our Catechism & Coffee Group today. We discussed the Catholic concept of redemptive suffering, which provides meaning and richness to our travails. You clearly get it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Tom 🙂
      God reveals to us so much through suffering, if we’d only stop throwing tantrums and just listen. Christianity is so incomplete without an understanding of redemptive suffering, and that’s one of the many reasons I’m so thankful to have been led to the Catholic Church. This quote is so very powerful and profound, but unfortunately would sound crazy or morbid to someone who’s yet to understand redemptive suffering: “When it is all over you will not regret having suffered; rather you will regret having suffered so little, and suffered that little so badly.”
      –St. Sebastian Valfre

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I relate to this post on the emotional/mental and physical sides of weakness thanks to depression battles and the challenges of a neuro-muscular disease that causes extreme, sometimes life-threatening weakness. Thank you for this post and prayers for spiritual strength, resilience, and perseverance for you and all in this battle!

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  7. As a MSW: MH who has PTSD I definitely viewed it as a weakness, even though I “know” it is not one. As a ILS, I also know that my physical disability is not a weakness. I never even considered it as one, only as something to be embraced and create a new life path that included it. Interesting no? I do not view my diagnosis as a weakness any longer, no, it is another gift given to me to learn from. It’s one of those little gifts we don’t ask for, but get anyway. Life is filled with them.
    My blog is concerned with finding a healthy, positive life where we live with our survival. Thank you for blogging the same.
    XX

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