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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Life lessons from Dumbo

I used to think this applied only to tragedies and misfortunes, things beyond our control. But I’m learning that it can also be true for the mistakes we make, the damage we create, and the hurt we cause. We can choose to not run away, and instead seek healing and forgiveness, learn about our weaknesses, and commit to do and be better. And that’s where even our most wretched failings could someday take us “up, and up, and up!” Right? Let’s choose to forgive ourselves. To deny that to ourselves to prevent ourselves from growing.

If you are discouraged it is a sign of pride, because it shows you trust in your own powers.

–Mother Teresa

A birthday message of hope for the weary

The following is one of the most beautiful birthday messages I’ve ever received. With my dear friend’s permission, I’m sharing it here because I believe this will speak to others who are fighting to find hope and beauty in the midst of great struggle:

Karen, you are my friend who has now twice been found by God in the desert. You are my friend who has now twice bloomed in the winter. And, you are my friend who has taken every drop of rain you have been grown with, and faithfully shared it out.

I hope that our paths frequently cross. I hope to serve with you. And, I do hope to cook with you at least once or twice more. But, above that, I hope that you constantly cross paths with the hurt, the weak, and the downtrodden, and deliver His hope to them, just as He has given this hope to you. The humanly impossible lives so brightly within you, and people will clamor for it in the midst of this world’s limitations.

Happy birthday Karen, I pray more joy and life for you than I can ever envision, and I know God will see it done.

What made it so special to me? It doesn’t serve to flatter and glorify the recipient, but rightfully gives all due honor to our Heavenly Father. It also captures a beautiful paradox that’s been on my mind: the rounds of suffering God has brought me through have made me both weaker and stronger at the same time. I was made weak in the sense that I can no longer think to rely on myself. To the world this is weakness — a lack of self-belief and self-determination — but truly, this “weakness” makes me stronger than I could ever be on my own. Because I now stand on a Rock so solid, more solid than a million times all the strength I possibly could muster within myself.

I will end with a fitting excerpt from one of my favorite poems, The Flower by George Herbert:

Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart
Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone
Quite under ground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown;
Where they together
All the hard weather,
Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

These are thy wonders, Lord of power,
Killing and quickning, bringing down to hell
And up to heaven in an houre;
Making a chiming of a passing-bell,
We say amisse,
This or that is:
Thy word is all, if we could spell.

chesterton faustina