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The Duality of Strength Today

Strength today is not the physical ancient Greek kind, nor is it modern and all in the head. There’s a duality we have to balance now.

Flowers in the stages of life
Credit: Shutterstock/Skalapendra

When I was little, my brother would always tell me to toughen up, to be strong. He said this through a multitude of situations, but there was one constant. From his “accidental” shoves to very purposeful nagging, it was always my reactions that made me either weak or strong.

Since emotional reactions are concerned with the virtues of a person, it is interesting to look at strength in that way — as a virtue of life.

Boiling down some of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, every virtue has an intermediate, i.e., a balance between displaying too much or too little. These differ based on the person, so one’s “right” display can be naturally lower or higher than another’s.

Now, to my brother, who is four years older and arguably a little “stronger,” my display needed to match his. As a result, I spent a large portion of my childhood covered in the reflections of trying to do things I wasn’t strong enough to do, leading me to my quintessential question.

Is strength a means or an end? Did the fact that I tried at all make me strong? Or did the outcome, the lack of completion, not constitute that?

Strength as trying

Animated knots
Credit: Shutterstock/Bibadash

The first way you can look at strength is as a means, where strength is found in repetition — repetition despite the result.

But as society shifts to be more result-oriented, the “means” of things can be lost. People take the same structure used to assess businesses and apply it as if we could be navigated in the same way an unprofitable acquisition is. However, focusing solely on results “fails to leverage the power of the human effort.” Since strength is found in effort, it follows that a result-oriented mindset would fail to justly measure it.

Results are just a measure of outcome, but the means remain the same. Simply put, a lot of times the results of something won’t change the journey itself, besides offering a sense of validation. And I know cheesy quotes about enjoying the journey are a dime-in-dozen, so I won’t spit those out here. In fact, I argue some journeys are straight-up unenjoyable. Either way, the result of them can’t be what reflects our strength.

If we let that be so, strength isn’t a virtue to be exercised but an end to be attained.

Strength as an end

The easiest way to explain this idea of strength is by relating it to the physical. You might say someone is strong after they spend grueling hours in the gym working for that to be so.

In that case, the title of strength is given at the end of the means. The end of a regimen or the sight of muscle definition.

Animated Strong Flexed  Muscle
Credit: Shutterstock/RaulAlmu

If we relate this same idea back to overall, or mental strength, what would it mean then? That someone is only strong if they succeed?

This view of strength is rejected by its very definition. In its truest form, strength is “the capacity of an object or substance to withstand great force or pressure.” Although vague, I find this definition widely applicable. Because what is strength if notwithstanding? And is there an end to that?

Is there a point at which you have withstanded something so much it no longer exists? In some cases maybe, like the passing of a hard class or higher weighted squat. But in lots of cases, there is not. Like in dealing with anxiety or a horrible coworker. Some things will constantly impose pressure against you, and the degree to which you can resist will never change that pressure.

Strength has been misconstrued

Not only has strength been misconstrued as an end, but its own definition has warped as well. Going back, I said it is to “withstand,” which has been interpreted as fighting against, when that isn’t always the case. Sometimes, to withstand something is to be okay, letting it win.

Rope about to break
Credit: Shutterstock/Ralf Geithe

This idea of activeness is the foundation of our hustle, result-oriented culture. Passivity is frowned upon, passivity is made to be the devil. Many people, specifically those in Gen Z, “struggle with this idea of constantly being on.”

Unfortunately, you can’t always be on. You can’t always have an active role in your life. Superseding forces exist and will be willed upon you. So if that is the stance society takes — that you should always be strong enough to fight against life and always actively doing something in the fight, there is no space for the ladder. To be strong enough to let life win for a second.

It takes a different kind of strength to accept failure. Like the lesson you teach to crying children; “be the bigger person and move on.”

No one will live a life free of unwinnable battles. Therefore, everyone must know how to lose and when to stop fighting.

So…we need balance

Whether or not you believe in Aristotle’s idea of the intermediate, you need to abide by it nonetheless. Pick your battles, as they say.

Animated person balancing on three balls
Credit: Shutterstock/eamesBot

Letting strength be a means provides not only an opportunity for balance in how you display it but for when you display it as well. Just as someone can’t be kind all the time, someone can’t be strong all the time. A balance needs to exist where people can feel okay not feeling strong.

Ironically, I think my brother instilled this in me perfectly. I never felt strong watching him belay down as I sat at the bottom, putting Neosporin on my elbows, but it’s almost as if he knew we both had worked through the same means. Both sat in the sun and calloused our hands. He saw that balance and, in turn, never peeped a word about my failure on the drive home. In fact, he always encouraged me I’d get it next time.

To each their own

My view of strength may feel arbitrary, and it’s fine if it is. But I encourage you to question why. To follow the seed of that doubt to its root and see if its roots grew in hustle culture.

Achievement, accolades, and goals all equate to something, but not the only thing.

True strength is the subjective intermediate for you. Knowing when to push and resend, in the same way, flowers know when to bloom and die.

Written By

Hi! I'm Addie, a journalism student at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. I'm new to Trill, but have been writing for as long as I can remember. Originally I'm from Denver, Colorado, where I love to spend time with my snowboard, my guitar, and my dogs.

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