“You’re so strong!” It’s a phrase that many people hear, when they’re struggling through difficult times. It’s intended to be (and perhaps often is) very affirming – effectively a way of saying “I don’t think I could cope half as well as you are, with what you’re going through.”
But it’s a phrase that often causes more damage than we realise. My chaplaincy role involves working with students who have been bereaved. These are usually young adults, many of whom have lost a parent, a sibling or a close friend. They will frequently know no one else in that position, and often feel a responsibility to make social interaction easier, when surrounded by people who have no idea what they may be going through, or how to react. Some are having to take on a significant amount of adult responsibility, whether financial, or a caring role, for which they may not feel prepared, or which they may not have expected to take on at 18 or 19. And they get praised – “You’re so strong.” And they feel the pressure to be strong – to cope, to bear up, to earn the praise.
This can be hardest for those whom we particularly expect to be strong, because of their gender, age, or role. Many of us find it hard to admit to ‘weakness’, because it not only affects people’s view of us in the moment but, we fear, may affect their whole perception of us. If we have a pastoral role, might they no longer feel that they can turn to us for support, for fear of troubling us with little things? Might they no longer see us as capable in other areas, because we’ve proved ourselves fragile in this?
The need to be ‘strong’ – to be seen to be coping, to avoid showing weakness – is often thought to be a significant part of the reason that young men are more likely to take their own lives than young women are. As a society, we load upon boys and men our expectations of masculinity, making it harder to seek support. This surely disempowers them, and gives a very distorted understanding of emotional maturity. The opposite expectation of girls and women also contributes to a stereotyped perception of them as ‘weak’ and ‘emotional’. This is an issue across much of society, but are we as a church complicit in that?
Jesus, facing the reality of his own death, asked his friends for their support and care (Matthew 26:37-41). We often note how they let him down, unable to stay awake, and reflect on how this may have added to his pain. But maybe the hardest part was asking them at all? And yet, maybe that was also one of the most important things he could do – to express to them his fear, his vulnerability, and his need of the strength of others? Perhaps, if we live a truly Christ-like life, that needs to include knowing when to be vulnerable? In particular, when we seek ‘strong leadership’, what do we mean by that? Leadership which expresses no emotion, and seeks no support? Leaders who make no mistakes? Or leadership which admits to vulnerability, asks for help, admits mistakes, says ‘sorry’ where appropriate, and asks others to pray for us?
Of course, there will be times when we have to be strong, to do the things that need to be done, to support the people that need to be supported. But perhaps what we should be saying to one another is not “You’re so strong”, but “How can I lend you strength?” Not “I’m impressed by your strength of emotion”, but “I realise that you may be needing to be strong right now, but if at any point you need to be weak, I’m here for you and won’t judge you.” Perhaps we need to stop asking for ‘strong leaders’, and seek instead leaders with a willingness to seek their strength from God – where appropriate, through their weak, vulnerable, very human fellow disciples?