Being Strong

There is a saying making the rounds of Facebook that I can’t get out of my mind: Strong people know how to keep their life in order. Even with tears in their eyes, they still manage to say, “I’m okay” with a smile.

Are these really signs of a strong person? If so, I must be the weakest person alive. I have no idea how to keep my life in order; to be honest, I don’t even know what that means. But it’s the second sentence that really has me flummoxed because when I’m not okay, I don’t lie and say I am.

CowboyIf you have tears in your eyes out in public where someone can see you, and that someone asks how you are, and you respond, “I’m okay” with a smile, you have just closed them out. That’s not a sign of strength. It might be a sign of having reached your limits. It might be that you don’t feel comfortable telling your troubles to a stranger. It might be that you’re feeling sorry for yourself and are ashamed. It might even be the proper response depending on the circumstances, but it’s not strength.

If you say, “I’m okay” with a smile to people you know, that’s a sign of weakness. Strength is letting people in. Letting them know the truth of you.

Think about it — how would you feel if someone you knew well said they were okay, and you later found out they were dying of cancer? You’d feel shut out, regretful of the words left unspoken, sorry for hugs not given. But when it comes to your own drama, you prefer to simply say you’re okay.

It takes strength to allow people a place in your trauma, so if you want to dismiss people’s concerns by saying “I’m okay” with or without a smile, that’s fine. You might even feel as if you are protecting them from hurt, but what you are doing is protecting yourself from the blessings that come from allowing others into the center of your life.

We’ve been raised in a code-of-the-west culture where it’s considered important not to complain, to keep your troubles to yourself, never to quit, to tough things out. I don’t advocate complaining for the sake of complaining, but telling the truth about how you are feeling or what you are going through to a sympathetic listener is an important step towards healing. It takes strength to show vulnerability, to go against those ingrained ideals.

Saying “I’m okay” with tears and a smile seems like a recipe for loneliness. Come to think of it, isn’t being alone part of that western code? Maybe it’s time to find a different definition of what a strong person is.


(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”) Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

16 Responses to “Being Strong”

  1. rami ungar the writer Says:

    My definition of a strong person–if I have to give one–is someone who, when it seems that they can’t move forward after all that’s happened, they stand up and try anyway, one step at a time. I got this definition from a manga I read back in high school. In the very first chapter (spoilers), the two leads expose the leader of a cult in an isolated desert town as a fraud trying to build himself an army of religious fanatics. When one character they met in that town asks what she’s supposed to do now that all her hopes have been dashed by these revelations, the older of the leads just tells her to get up and keep moving forward, one step at a time. It works, though we don’t see this until later in the series.

  2. Ken Coffman Says:

    I’m okay, thanks.

  3. Sherrie Hansen Says:

    This is so wise and well-said. I love it.

  4. Constance Says:

    Very true. Over the years, I have come to realize that I shut people out that could have helped me. I was taught to be strong and independent. I pushed people (including my family) away from me by doing this. When you need help, you need to accept it when it is offered to you. You hurt them and yourself when you don’t. When I was divorced (5 yrs. with 2 teenagers) it hurt my children by not getting help that I needed for them. I thought and believed that I could do it alone. Not so. Rejected help that I could have used.

  5. belasbrightideas Says:

    I agree that it takes strength to let others in. The stiff upper lip was for my parents’ generation, of ‘women behaving.’ No wonder there is so much suffering in a world that has lost the keys to humility and authenticity.

  6. Kathy Says:

    I agree with you, Pat. Saying “I’m fine” is weakness, not strength. It’s parroting what others have taught us to say. It’s meaningless. Besides, Facebook skews reality. I wouldn’t take too seriously what goes around there. 🙂

  7. leesis Says:

    Yes yes and yes.
    The other ‘code-of-the-west culture’ is the suppression of emotions.

    The scene: you bump into a friend out in the public who asks you if you are okay. You want to say no, no I’m not and burst into tears. You want them to simply be with you in that moment, a hug perhaps, no words needed, just there.

    But none of this happens. You are too embarrassed to cry in public, the friend embarrassed by public displays of emotions and in her embarrassment uncomfortable and hopeless, and thank-god no one will be staring. This is so deep in our culture and starts when little boys and girls are told to stop crying.

    That on top of your brilliant post = poor folk struggling so much more than they need too.
    No wonder acts of rage are on the increase.

  8. e Says:

    Don’t believe the stuff on Facebook. Feel whatever you feel and let those in who can deal with your truth. That number may be smaller but the attention more genuine.

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