Achilles, Strength and Vulnerability

As lover of Twitter, I see many positive, supportive messages/memes every day which highlight “strength” and “vulnerability”.  I recently began pondering these two words and what they actually mean.  Are strength and vulnerability, in the context of a person’s emotional state of being, completely opposing concepts?  Or are they two sides of the same coin – a textbook example of yin and yang?  Or …. perhaps something else entirely…? Even interchangeable terms?

Online dictionary definitions suggest:

StrengthThe emotional or mental qualities necessary in dealing with difficult or distressing situations

VulnerabilityThe quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally

With this in mind, having felt tempted by the #RunEveryDay hashtag trending on Twitter last month, I joined in and have run every day for weeks spurred on by Tweets from other runners enjoying this hashtag activity.  I like running & relished the challenge to run daily for a calendar month, often leaving before dawn to fit the run in (an early riser by nature),  while continuing normal fitness routine with gym-pals in the evenings.  All went swimmingly until day 17; the over-training began to stress both my Achilles tendons.  Giving up did not seem an obvious option, after all the challenge set was a whole month!  Was continuing with #RunEveryDay despite injuries a sign of strength, “soldiering on”?  Or an indicator of vulnerability, not wanting to “fail” at the set challenge by giving up?  It seems apt to acknowledge the irony at this point too, given the well-known Greek story of the warrior Achilles, and an “Achilles heel” as a metaphorical reference to one’s weak point, or vulnerability…

What do our society’s messages encourage children to value – strength or vulnerability?  Central government promotes schools teaching children “resilience”.  Is resilience synonymous with strength? Can resilience grow and develop as a result of vulnerability?  It is often children who live with increased levels of vulnerability who earn the label of “resilient” from the very professionals in public sector services supporting their family.  Although, one cannot help wonder if embracing vulnerability is perhaps an important quality to nurture in children, too? Surely feeling safe enough to own their own vulnerability, rather than fearing judgement as a direct result of it, enables children to grow up not needing to bury trauma and modify their responses to it? Evidently these behaviours can leave trauma unprocessed, for weeks or years only to reappear much later.

“ Owning our story can be hard, but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it.”             ~ Brené Brown

Herein, the thought that strength and vulnerability could co-exist radically begins to emerge.  Maybe it is not simply black and white?  Either/or?  Maybe there is not always a tension between the two, but instead a symbiosis?  Perhaps the really essential feature is having the choice.  We can choose to exercise strength.  We can choose to embrace vulnerability.  It is when we stop choosing and let external factors take over that we are no longer in control of our own outcomes.  Maybe in choosing to accept and own our vulnerability, we are choosing strength because those pathways which demand us to face our vulnerability are usually a little rockier to navigate.  The dramatic lyrics to the Kelly Clarkson song “Stronger” come to mind here.  Wherever one is at – whether feeling strong, or feeling vulnerable – every day brings new challenges, new opportunities and a fresh horizon of hope.  One can wonder whether the ability to embrace vulnerability is a strength, and in being strong we are better equipped to own our vulnerability and for some, even courageous enough to voice it.  Ultimately, the freedom to choose which works for us as individuals is cultivated in the absence of feeling judged by others and instead feeling cherished for who we are – each a unique person with our our strengths and vulnerabilities.

Could vulnerability and strength even be the same thing?

With that in mind, let’s try and remember this…..