What is strength?

To be truthful, that last post about my dad’s death knocked me flat for a few days. I’ve told the story many times before but never has it flowed so freely. It seemed to come from another place — I was merely the conduit. I’ve read it a few times and wondered how I gained such insight. This idea that the ones who cry and rant and rave are stronger than those who attack came from somewhere outside of me.

I share most of my blog posts on my Facebook group page, Emotional Diabetes. One of my friends, Jane, commented, “Sandra, you are stronger than you know.” Jane is the person I ran to when my marriage ruptured, who has seen me emotionally crumble and who gave me my first hug post-Covid.

I think I know what Jane meant by my being strong. We use the term strong in relation to our emotions. But what do we really mean? When I think about being strong, I get tense. My fight-or-flight reaction kicks into gear. I puff out my chest. I look for those who will want to attack me. I want to be ready to defend myself. I act very much like prey, not a predator.

My ex-father-in-law, who was in his 90’s at the time, said “The shortest way through a storm is right through the middle.” If you consider the storm as our natural emotional response, then it seems to suggest that feeling, really feeling, those emotions like grief, fear, sorrow and anger is better than blocking them out.

I think our bodies would be much better off if we all had been raised to cry, rant or rage when we felt the urge. Being disciplined for expressing anger or told not to cry, then banished to our room, sets us up for health issues later in life. My pancreas is pretty much dead now, after repeatedly putting out fires lit by my fight-or-flight hormone, cortisol.

A guy I dated once was a football fanatic. I watched TV games with him and was interested in how the commentators pointed out the players’ “passion.” It’s a word often used in Hallmark movies. But obviously linebackers going head to head with each other aren’t being soft and fuzzy — they’re acting like they want to kill each other. So where’s the passion?

More likely, they’re referring to aggression. Something football fans seem to seek in games. In a 2011 paper, researchers explored the link between violence and aggression on the success of a team and fan attendance. The paper found that attendance at football games increased with the number of egregious rule infractions. In other words, people like to see a more violent interaction between players than is allowed under the current rules. What’s that about?

I don’t know. I don’t enjoy watching fights, whether it be in a boxing ring, a hockey game or a football field. But maybe those who do like that kind of thing feel a vicarious release of tension. Maybe it’s a safe way to express a buried emotion?

Back to being strong. The closest word I can think of when it comes to demonstrating emotional strength is resilience, that ability to bend with pressure but return to your centre. And the more you bend and return to that centre, the stronger that centre becomes.

I think that’s what comes up when I recall Dad’s death and memorial service. At the time, I felt completely destroyed by my family’s actions, but I had to find a path forward. A higher path, one paved with compassion, understanding and empathy. And I’m sharing that experience with you now. Others may be needing to find their own path forward.

In the end, we just want to have healthy minds, hearts and bodies. A little happiness would be great, too.

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