The first time I read this, I had just moved to New York City, straight from college. I was thinking a lot about storytelling, and how to pay the rent, and what it felt like to be alone. I didn’t yet realize that I would be living into this quote, I just knew at the moment that it resonated.
I have, what some might call, a tendency to be “mushy.” I feel a lot, all the time, and it’s a gift that I would never want to give away. But it can also be hard. We’re taught that feeling deeply can be a weakness instead of a strength. And because of that, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to “care less”; to have a better poker face, to be able to walk away easier from people, to stop crying when watching cartoons.
The thing about feeling a lot is that each person, each heartbreak, each disappointment, is vivid. This is perhaps what allows so many artists and writers to capture pain or suffering; our job is to be alchemists, to transform the dark into something digestible, or at least find a container for the dark so someone else might be able to encounter it safely.
To do this job means “to tell the truth about the wound”, even when the telling of that truth isn’t easy. And for a while, I avoided telling the truth by telling myself I should be less easily moved by the world. I wondered if I might consider myself “strong” when I mastered my tendency to go towards people with open arms.
So, when I moved to the city, I tried to build myself a steely exterior. It seemed like a good place to do it– people bumping into you on the street, no need for an excuse to be angry or gruff. I let a friend tattoo my shoulder, and I didn’t let myself cry. I online dated, acted like casual was something I could do. And I learned to box, did thousands of burpees and pushups, and wiped away tears the first time I got hit in the face, determined to be hit again and this time not cry.
I did these things because if I’m telling the truth about the wound, I’ve often felt weak. Weak for feeling so much, so easily, and so easily being swept away by something as simple as a leaf falling from a tree.
In order to understand what true strength was, I taught myself the opposite of softness. By learning the opposite of softness, I’ve learned that true strength, for me, means feeling deeply and trusting myself enough to tell the truth about the wound (as well as the joy). Sometimes it means being a little bit bristly when someone is messing with you, but often it means admitting that something brought you pain and that you do care.
Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes talks about “the right medicine” for our lives. At Brooklyn Herborium, we have a tea called Inner Strength, which I’ve been drinking since almost the beginning of my time in New York. It’s filled with herbal goodness (nettles, red raspberry leaf, and oatstraw.
Our co-founder, the lovely Emma Graves, says about this tea: “Nettles include minerals that improve cellular function and communication, oatstraw contains minerals that improve strength (like iron), and red raspberry is tonifying. It’s called Inner Strength because true strength, to me, means being durable and supple from the inside out, like a willow, which bends instead of breaks.”
Drinking this tea daily reminds me that while sometimes strength is visible, strength can also be incredibly quiet. This discreteness doesn’t make it any less powerful, though in a society which focuses on external appearance and product, we are taught to value “inner strength” less than say, a six pack (though all the power to you if you have that as well).
What interests me now is: how do we tell the truth about what pains us? How do we bend instead of break? How do we challenge our preconceived notions of strength?
How can telling this truth, either quietly to ourselves or publicly (if need be), become “the right medicine?”
I don’t have the answers, and I will certainly continue to get tattoos and box. But within the context of my life, I’m trying to accept where I’m soft (physically, spiritually, mentally) instead of trying to change that softness. Perhaps coming to a place of acceptance might be the strongest place, the best medicine, of all.
Writing by Raisa Imogen
Raisa Imogen was born in Portland, OR, grew up in Chicago, and currently lives in Queens. She is the co-founder of Siren Magazine.
Her poetry and other work can be found at www.raisaimogen.net.