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.
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.
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.