The sky is dim with variations of silver and blue and the lake appears like mottled flesh, its fragile skin slowly abating though still intact, save for the small, rippling pools scattered across its surface. The wind shifts unexpectedly and I feel it press against my body where I stand near the lake. It tosses the gulls across the sky, and the gulls acquiesce, tilting their wings like the arms of tightrope walkers compelled from their ropes. They pitch and level to remain upright, but eventually abandon their course, drifting first out across the lake, and then back to the shore, and then to the North and then to the South. Their vertiginous sway is an unexpected dance, uncalculated, imprecise, and hypnotic. I stand on the rocks and imagine the pendulum within my own body, calibrating to compensate for the influence of the wind. It shifts my weight with slight flickers of tension across and around my center, and down through my legs. It keeps me upright. And so I stand, seemingly still, and the wind presses against me, while within, my body is moving with the intention required to maintain my stance.
The strength of men can be a precarious thing, vacillating to weakness when a stronger wind presses against it, becoming undone by haunting doubts, and collapsing under overwhelming pressure. We strain to define ourselves by it in its various forms but so often find ourselves caught in a cycle of fearful attempts and defeating failures. Depicted clearly in legends of men who could tear a lion apart with their bare hands, defeat mythical beasts, and destroy a giant with a single stone, masculine strength has been consistently clear in its quality of imposing power and raw physicality. And so it feels masculine to tackle another man down in sport. It feels masculine to push a weighted steel bar away from my chest. It feels masculine to imagine overpowering an enemy with brute strength. It feels masculine to be strong, but what does it mean to be strong?
My body is finite. The muscles that wrap and strain and pull and flex around my bones are no more permanent than a decaying leaf. If I lay still they will atrophy. If I demand too much of them they will twist and break. If I do not eat, my body will turn to them for sustenance until they are gone. My body is a frail shell. I strengthen it by small degrees and still it is a frail shell. I expand muscle tissue by a careful regime and still it is a frail shell. It diminishes as my attention turns to other things and still it is a frail shell. It is not difficult to recognize the lessening importance of physical strength in a society that is no longer dependent on it. The strongest men I know live in small rural villages in countries where physical strength is often a prerequisite for survival and where vanity is a faraway thought. Here in Western society, physical strength rarely serves an actual purpose beyond showmanship. We say, “Look, I am strong. Look, I am a man.” We go to special buildings to pay money to spend energy that goes nowhere. We run ten miles without moving. We lift one hundred pounds and put it back exactly where we found it. We exercise our masculine strength in the hope that it will define our value as men, but we have so little use for the strength we attain. I’m not advocating for a life of inactivity. I’m not even advocating against physical strength. I’m only questioning our motives and wondering if what we really desire is a quality of strength that is not so easily undone, and one that serves something beyond our ego.
I’ve spent most of my life feeling as familiar with weakness as I have with strength. Following an exertion of strength I have often felt condemned by the weakness evidenced by my failure to achieve my dreams, or to be the man I have wanted to be. I’ve lost faith at times in the belief that I have any strength at all, and then despaired, returning cyclically throughout my life to a feeling of defeat that has suffused my sense of identity, and limited me from moving forward. Experiences of weakness have been tantamount to identifying as weak.
I recently burned all my journals. I tore the pages calmly from each leather binding and filled my face with the heat of their flames until my skin reddened and the boxes were empty. I wanted to mark the end of a cycle that I have felt subject to most of my life, in which I have aspired to be virtuous and strong, have eventually failed, and consequently plummeted into the belief that I must not be worthy of the love I was desperately tying to enact, return to, or even feel. Having attempted so many times to be strong and invariably discovering that I was not, I eventually arrived at a point of acceptance of this cycle. I wrote often of “the mire” I felt I was in. It became a necessary phase in my attempts at virtue, and as I delved deeper and deeper into its sadness, I became more familiar with it, until I began to believe that I belonged as much to the darkness as to the light. Like a phoenix, continually returning to the earth in a heap of ash, I have failed again and again, and in my weakness felt at times a tinge of relief to have failed, to resign to the affirmed belief that I do not deserve my dreams nor the love I have so earnestly sought, that my true place is there in the soot, sullied, weak, and defeated.
I watch the gulls being thrown back and forth above the lake and am in wonder at their clumsy grace. Their bodies move willingly but even at a distance I can see the nervous flickers of their tail feathers and their wings, which flinch readily to keep them from being flipped over and thrown down into the ice. They submit without resistance to a strength that is greater than their own, knowing that they also possess the strength to surrender. It is an active surrender, one still requiring attention and strength, but a strength that responds to the guidance of something outside of itself, something known to be yielded to.
I want to reimagine my understanding of masculine strength, which I’ve been taught should be defined by assertion and power, and which, influenced by the fear of separation, would respond to strength outside of itself as a threat to be defeated or escaped. I want to know the strength of surrendering to the strength that exists beyond myself, in those around me, in the earth, and in the divine. I want to let the wind carry me when my strength wanes; still engaged, still experiencing the realization of my dreams and the eternal depth of love to which I belong, but no longer straining against the very thing that offers me a needed reprieve, or reprimand, or redirection. I want to know the strength of allowing myself to be held, and led by the many embodiments of strength that exist outside of myself.
We’ve been told with gentleness that we should allow ourselves to be weak, that it is okay to fall. I wouldn’t deny this. I would, however, hope that weakness would no longer be seen as a necessary counterpart to strength, and therefore something to resign ourselves to. We’ve become so accustomed to the cycles of strength and weakness in our lives that we assume that strength cannot exist without weakness, that defeat is inevitable and failure is to be embraced as an old, familiar friend. If we could instead recognize that strength’s necessary counterpart is not weakness at all but submission to a greater strength, we need not continually return to the sense of defeat that threatens to name us. We need not resume our addiction to the cycles of death and rebirth that hold us back from a lasting rebirth, that we would recognize for once the eternal quality of our birth, and no longer resign ourselves in fear to the denial of our strength, and our love, and our deep value.
Above the flashing, flickering bodies of the gulls, the eagles continue to soar at such heights that little can be seen of them. Their strength is implicit in their inspiring ascension but it is not solely by their own strength that they achieve this feat. It is only in the marriage of the eagle’s strength with the strength of the wind that he reaches the heights that he does. The eagle delights in the wind as his ally, and the wind delights in the eagle as his beloved. Together they soar.