It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." - Theodore Roosevelt
We would all like to think of ourselves as strong, tough or resilient. We would like to think that when life gives us lemons, not only do we make lemonade, we do it with fortitude. We look the problem in the eye and we go for it. We take no crap and suffer no fools. And in the end, the triumph is ours. Our society values strength. We admire those around us who seem to stand up and declare that they are not afraid.
I have been reading the most fantastic book recently, Rising Strong by social work researcher Brene Brown. In it, Brown talks about the value of vulnerability in strength and overcoming adversity in life, in both the big moments and the day-to-day hiccups. The crux of Brown's approach is exactly as Roosevelt states. Courage is not winning, courage is 'being in the arena'. It's dusting yourself off and starting again. It's turning up even when you've been beaten down.
The concept of strength to me has always been that typical Type A response. Attacking the problem head on with huge amounts of gusto. Now though, I think that most of human achievement actually comes from the moments in the arena. It comes from the moments when we have to show faith or hope or vulnerability. That kind of exposure of yourself is much greater than the exposure of grabbing a bull by the horns. History is full of stories of triumph over adversity, but what is often left out of that story is that they showed up and put themselves on the line in the first place.
Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it's having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome" -- Brene Brown, Rising Strong
The concept of strength being about brute force rather than the gentler vulnerability and quiet, persistent courage is a barrier to real happiness and real success, both personally and professionally. It is disconnecting us from those around us and leaving us to wrestle with feelings of inadequacy rather than the difficulties at hand.
It is the falling short of our need to win that creates a dangerous workplace culture when we take our shame and frustrations out on someone with less power than us. It stops us from seeing what our emotions truly tell us that we want. It stops us from asking for what we need and want in life. It's the pride that lands us in more trouble when we don't ask for help. It's the isolation from our family and friends when we don't communicate what really matters to us.
The real strength lies in compassion. Compassion for ourselves and the hurt that we experience. Compassion for others so that we might see that they are trying their hardest or are imperfect, even when they fall short. Their best may not be our best or even in our best interests, but when we look at what has happened with compassion, life is a little easier. And rather than pure anger or some other Type-A response, we can grow ourselves and maybe even help with the growth of others.
I wish I had known more about just being in the arena before now. About the power of vulnerability and compassion. I think it may have made me a better person, a better partner, a better friend and a better doctor. In my work, for example, vulnerability, honesty and compassion can strip away power differentials that perpetuate disease and create a strong therapeutic relationship. In our personal lives, the thought of being truly connected to someone else, out on that limb together, is true intimacy.
In our society, we might learn to grow together if we start seeing the world not in terms of winning or losing but of the power of showing up and being real. We can act from a place of authenticity and integrity and I don't know about you, but I think that will definitely help me sleep at night.