By Mark E. Smith
I know a lot about strength. No, it’s not because I’ve long worked out with weights, toned and trim for a man my age. Rather, I know a lot about strength because I know that’s what it takes to expose my every vulnerability to those around me.
It’s natural that all of us feel a need to “present” ourselves in the best light, not wanting others to see our vulnerabilities, possibly perceived as weaknesses, at least in our own minds. After all, our biggest fear as social creatures is rejection. And, while there are certain environments where putting only our best face forward is appropriate, such as a job interview, there are other circumstances where if we’re going to demonstrate our ultimate strength, it means exposing our ultimate vulnerabilities.
I was recently at an event where I was fortunate to be a known figure, fitting the cultural norm of “strength.” I was a bit of a celebrity or politician, you might say. I was well-dressed, poised, blessed with the graciousness of many recognizing me. And, I had the privilege of having my partner with me, where she witnessed me move through the event as a “man of strength.” And, isn’t that how we want our romantic partners to see us: successful, poised and recognized as someone of merit?
Yet, for me, there was ultimately nothing proud or strong about any of that. Sure, I was authentic in truly caring about the people around us, and humbled by the recognition. But, breezing through a crowd with my hair combed just right and people recognizing me didn’t make me strong. What made me strong was what happened hours earlier, that only one other person knew about – my partner.
See, having cerebral palsy often makes me the opposite of poised, far outside the cultural framework of masculinity, the archetypical male model we see shaving shirtless in the mirror of Gillette commercials. Rather, I have vulnerabilities. But, that in itself gets to my definition of the epitome of masculine strength – that is, having the courage to share with others your deepest vulnerabilities, where you don’t hide any part of you, allowing others to see all of you. That takes the truest form of strength.
And, although I’d strolled through the event poised, of strength, hours earlier my partner and I shared a much different reality: my vulnerabilities. I wasn’t a recognized figure in a tie and jacket, but a man with severe cerebral palsy struggling to go through my morning routine in a hotel room not set-up for my needs. And, my partner both witnessed and assisted with my struggles. And, with the truest of strength, I shared with her my utmost vulnerabilities. Yes, it was emotionally scary. And, yes, it was embarrassing at moments. However, most of all, it was ultimately liberating. Just being you, in your most vulnerable ways, and letting another see and accept you as-is, supporting you as-is, is a life-changing experience.
What I’ve learned is that the minute that we have the strength to drop all pretenses, and share our utmost vulnerabilities with someone we trust, it removes all between us, and our relationships become deeper and totally authentic. Masks create barriers to intimacy, whereas having the courage, the strength to remove them allows us to be us, and others to love us for us.
In this way, if you want to live with ultimate strength, there’s only one way to do it: have the courage to share your ultimate vulnerabilities. And, I don’t worry about being the guy in the Gillette commercial – I have an electric razor.