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The Weakness of Strength

July 3rd, 2020 Ravenna, Italy

The Weakness of Strength

In Ancient Chinese philosophy the ever-recognizable symbol of yin and yang is both appealing from an aesthetic point of view and also from the perspective of its simple philosophy—the nature of opposites.

However, are things really that straightforward in the end? Is it only about the interconnectedness between fire and water, male and female, earth and sky, and so on? In other words, when we consider these opposites, why do we categorize them as such to begin with? Surely, fire and water couldn’t be any more different in terms of their chemical compositions, but if we look at their capacity to cause destruction, they really are very similar in the end. A flood can destroy a city just as quickly as a fire can; in this sense, their properties are almost identical.

The same can be said for men and women. There’s a biological and chemical difference even (testosterone, body type, and other factors), but in their actual desires, men and women—if once again we look at it from the perspective of destruction—have almost similar capacities to wreak havoc on themselves and on others; in the same vein, the capability and desire for love is pretty much equal in both sexes (for those who think women are generally more empathetic, I highly urge you to familiarize yourself with Stanley Milgram’s electroshock experiment). For our purposes, however, let us grant that men and women are the same when it comes to their ability to cause destruction and their capabilities for love. What purpose does the yin and yang serve, then, if we look at fire and water—or women and men, for that matter—from the perspective of love and destruction?

I would like to make the same argument for strength and weakness; biologically, a bodybuilder might be stronger than your average man and the best female bodybuilder will always be weaker than her male counterpart—granted. If we look at strength and weakness from the perspective of destruction and love, however, things move beyond the traditional yin and yang conception—the black and white becomes one thing, grey.

The great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, in his book The Anti-Christ, wrote the following: “What is good? Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.” Nietzsche, in this sense, believed that it was both natural and noble for people to display their strength, for that meant the complete realization of the individual—the final transformation of a person as he or she attained a total agency over their will with which they could maximize their own powers, in a sense becoming divine to an extent, even godlike, perhaps. “God is dead,” Nietzsche famously uttered, and he must be replaced with something—the individual and his will to power.

In the most poetic sense, however, Nietzsche died at the age of 55, completely in the care of his family, having lost whatever powers (whether creative or physical) he had. Nevertheless, the strength of the thought he produced—despite the later debilitation that affected his body—remains as powerful as ever. The question hence becomes: Was Nietzsche a weak man? It’s a difficult question to answer. Certainly, he was a hypocrite because he didn’t have the strength to kill himself before becoming the less-than-ideal human being that people should be according to his view.

The same can be said for Ayn Rand, who, throughout her younger years, denounced those who took advantage of social services as parasites and moochers, only to suffer a debilitating illness later in life which gave her no other choice but to collect social security—something she chose to do under a different name. Today, Atlas Shrugged remains one of the most powerful books ever written. Like Nietzsche, what do we make of this?

I have neither the intention nor desire to defend or criticize Nietzsche or Rand—it’s not my place to judge. I would, however, like to resume the discussion of strength and weakness. Strength, and by extension the power it produces, has given us many positive things. Firefighters carrying people out of burning buildings, laborers who built great monuments like the pyramids, and, in the psychological sense, resilient individuals we can depend on are also a product of strength. In the same sense, however, strength has also given people the ability to build walls, to push others away, and to harm the environment; with respect to building walls (whether physical or psychological), the strength which allows for this is actually based on weakness—an obsession from protecting one’s self from threats real or imagined and in that sense the act represents a fundamental characteristic not of power, but of fear. In other words, unlike vulnerability, strength plays it safe by installing barriers to keep danger away, knowing perhaps that it might not be powerful enough to deal with whatever problem life may produce.

Weakness, and by extension vulnerability, does not have the luxury of this aforementioned protection; it must deal with whatever arises (whether it’s physical or psychological) in a direct manner. Paradoxically, also, by refusing to close itself off, to shut itself away from the world, vulnerability takes more chances; it opens itself up to new experiences, people, places, and opportunities—even when it has been hurt before. Vulnerability is a testament to the human spirit. It represents the highest essence of humanity. Some authors like Ursula K. Le Guin have even argued that the suffering which comes from being vulnerable is purer than love. In her novel, The Dispossessed, she writes the following, worth quoting at length: “It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.” The ability to suffer, to be vulnerable is, thus, the greatest human strength—many are capable of doing it stoically while some need drugs or different forms of escape and others yet can’t endure this pain at all.

Even more interesting to our discussion is the fact that strong people who use their power to build physical and psychological walls around themselves have even less chance of finding happiness and joy. They may be comforted by the momentary security which they do receive in their dungeons, but sooner or later the person must step out in search of food for the body and nourishment for the soul, which represents the happiness we all seek. Le Guin is, likewise, aware of this fact: “If you evade suffering you also evade the chance of joy. Pleasure you may get, or pleasures, but you will not be fulfilled. You will not know what it is to come home.” The age-old cliché of leaving the comfort zone to succeed even reaches as far as Sicily: Cu nesci arrinesci; this is one of the first things I learned in Italy that I had already known for a long time, just not in the Sicilian language. It must be said that I’ve taken a very positive interpretation of the aforementioned proverb; according to a very good Sicilian friend I met here, the phrase is largely construed negatively on the island—young people abandoning Sicily to seek fortune elsewhere, but there’s nevertheless something to be said about moving on and away from your comfort zone to find success, to make a change, to see things differently.

Frankly, in that respect, I’ve always had a rather negative outlook on weakness and vulnerability—being a man made it “necessary” to conform with certain gender standards imposed by society and this didn’t help my perspective either. It was only at the University of Bologna at the end of Professor Annalisa Furia’s course, Political Power Beyond State Boundaries: Migration, Development and Human Rights, that I began to change my mind about this topic. In one of her concluding lecture slides, she had written the following about reevaluating vulnerability: “even though it is produced as the condition of certain categories, it is our common condition.” Once again, a simple piece of logic on the surface but the fact that she had chosen to highlight “common condition” made me start thinking deeper about the issue. Whereas before I had championed Nietzsche’s idea of the will to power, I now denounce it as the weakest pursuit humans can have. In fact, much of what constitutes power is based on paranoia and pathological fear. Seattle University professor and psychologist George Kunz, who passed away recently, in his book, The Paradox of Power and Weakness, argues exactly that: “When we are psychologically captured and driven by our own power, we know that our bondage is, first, our addiction to the sweet taste of power itself; second, our addiction to the stuff that power can purchase; third, our habitual blindness to the needs of others; and, finally, our fear of losing the power to exercise more power. Obsessive fear, compulsive needs and fear of others’ taking our power drive us into ourselves and away from others. The power of power can be self-destructive. It tends to burrow into and cling to the heart, rather than expose itself to the needy claims of others.” On a personal level, Kunz’s statement fascinates me because I experienced something exactly like what he describes for myself.

Again, as I’ve said before, it’s not my place to judge anyone here; thus, I will simply describe the situation in the most neutral way possible. About seven months ago, I got to know a person (let’s call this individual Alex and use “they” in the interest of privacy). Although I still think Alex is a great person, they fit Dr. Kunz’s description perfectly, which made it very hard to spend time with them. Due to the walls they built, any attempt to go beyond the surface with this person was met with resistance; at the same time, interaction was quite cordial and warm when Alex could stay within clearly delineated comfort zones and things also went especially well at parties when everyone was drunk and there was no need—or the capability, for that matter—to discuss something more meaningful. Alex enjoyed the attention of everyone, so long as others didn’t dig below the surface and come out on the other side of the wall; on repeated occasions, nevertheless, this very person described themselves as “strong,” and tried to project an image of fierce independence—all of this, however, was an illusion, because, in reality, Alex was and continues to be an individual who neither possesses much mental resilience, nor independence; their strength and independence, in fact, is produced by deriving great pleasure from their ability to manipulate people and using them for whatever purposes any given situation requires—at will. I have really not seen what Alex is like when there’s no one to impress or manipulate, all I know is that their self-purported strength turned out to be hollow in the end because they repeatedly refused to behave in a manner beyond surface-level interaction (one of the characteristics of mental fortitude) despite showing great interest and warmth towards me in their comfort zone, where the chance of being vulnerable was very low.

It’s always discouraging when people don’t turn out to be who you thought they were, especially when they don’t live up to the very labels they make for themselves. My idea of strong men and women lies in their ability to be vulnerable, to take risks, to give other people a chance, especially when these very individuals only want the best for you. As I said, I neither blame Alex, nor do I think they’re a bad person—it’s just a psychological burden to be around them, and that’s why I decided to distance myself. They’re too “strong” and they themselves push people away.

In the end, I don’t think life is really long enough for us to be powerful. We spend many of our years helpless and weak, from the moment we’re born until we become adults; and in old age we require the care and attention of others. The prime of our life is perhaps ten or twenty years at best. I’m always reminded of this when I listen to Bob Seger‘s song Fire Inside. My favorite part is quite pertinent to the discussion:

I think we all have problems and we all need help in certain respects—I’m probably the person who’s in need of the most guidance in this respect, but when someone claims to be “strong” just to push people away, all because they don’t want to experience vulnerability, well, then, like Le Guin said, they don’t have a good chance of finding the spiritual nourishment that produces happiness—something which exists outside of their caves. No person can help another person who’s hanging from a cliff but refuses to take someone’s hand because they trust in their own strength to pull themselves up.

On the concluding slide of her lecture, Professor Furia posted the following quote by Giovanni Testori: “Healing is possible only if you accept the wound.” Life will break everyone—even the so-called “strong.” The question, hence, becomes: How will you get up and what will you do afterwards?

Addition: After reading my article, Alex got the suspicion that I was writing about them. As I predicted, they sent me an insulting message accusing me of all sorts of things: It was my fault that I tried to seek a closer connection with them; it was my fault for trying to be a good friend. It can’t be denied that I did misjudge the nature of this friendship; on my part, I take full responsibility for that, but the anger coming from this person was totally unwarranted; it confirmed to me everything that I’ve written—Alex is obsessed by the power which comes from their own self-described strong personality and my refusal to be controlled any longer meant they had lost the ability to manipulate someone, which is all they really wanted to begin with. As I again predicted, instead of talking to me, asking if the article was about them (maybe it is and maybe it isn’t—I never implicated them; it could be about anyone, really), and attempting to resolve the situation in a way where we could both walk away from this like mature adults, they continued using their weakness of strength to build bigger walls and push me further away, unfriending me on Facebook and blocking me on WhatsApp—indeed, very powerful, independent, and mature, which is exactly what I expected from this “strong” person. Had they been stronger, however, more courageous even, and attempted to speak with me like I’m a human being instead of a punching bag, I may have gone the extra mile myself and agreed to take down the article, but not any longer, because, like I said, Alex’s actions confirmed all the arguments I made within it. To the insulting message I received, I sent the nicest possible response, stating that despite their disparaging remarks, I still respected them and wished them the best. Why let something good that happened in the past turn bad from my side? On this Independence Day, I can say that I’m free and that I’ve finally moved on from this.


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