On finding strength in weakness.
I’ve never been a weak person.
I used to be a runner in middle and high school. I always used to push my own boundaries and run until the sun sank beneath the hills in the Ohio countryside. Later when I went to college my freshman year, I worked in the sports industry as a photojournalist. I started freelancing at eighteen years old, and creating long-term photojournalism projects in the spring of my first year. During my junior year of college, I traveled to Honduras building a story with people I had never met in a country who spoke a language I only slightly understood. This past summer, I hiked an overgrown path down a ravine lined with fallen pines and rushing water to a granite cliffside where I plunged twenty-five feet into a lake I’d never swam in before. I’ve never been a weak person.
Recently, I had someone say that I didn’t turn into the person they expected me to be, and they were disappointed in my weakness. It’s been a few months since that conversation and if we’re being honest, I’m still not sure how to respond. As I’ve tried to figure out what exactly this comment meant, the best analogy I can come up with is that of a sub-par pizza: It’s like when you order a pizza and you’re waiting for it to be delivered and you’re really excited about it and all the gooey cheese and toppings it will surely have only to find upon delivery that the pizza is slightly different than what you ordered and the whole thing is very sub-par. Apparently, that’s what I am. Or, at least, that’s what this individual thinks of me these days: A weak, sub-par pizza of a human being.
During the same conversation, I was also told that I’m weak for going home when my husband deployed. “It’s better to learn independence than to keep running back home to your family all the time,” they said.
In this same talk and in others, I’ve also heard that if I just traveled more, or got a “real” job, or interacted with my surroundings, or spent more time outside, or picked up a hobby, or any other multitude of things on a growing list, I’d be so much happier and more content. It’s as if everyone has a prescription pad ready to jot down cures for life’s difficulties. Cures for people like me. Cures for the sub-par and the weak.
Jake left for training on August 31, 2018. He came back to South Dakota at the end of September for a few short days, left for more training in October, and didn’t come back to South Dakota until a few days before Christmas. In October, I was on the phone with my mom to tell her that I just wouldn’t come home for Thanksgiving this year but I’d come back around Christmas. I hung up with tears in my eyes. I instantly pulled up Google on my computer and started looking up flights back to Ohio. Within fifteen minutes, I had called my parents back and booked a ticket to Akron-Canton airport. I cried to my mother, telling her that I didn’t want to be weak. I couldn’t fail at this. I needed to be strong and I needed to stay here in South Dakota, alone, to prove simply that I could. To prove that I didn’t need them or Jake or anyone to make it on my own. I couldn’t fail at another thing in my life. Both of my parents and my husband then all assured me of exactly what I needed to hear: THERE IS NO PRIDE TO BE HAD IN LONELINESS. Knowing when you need help, and seeking that help, is one of the strongest things you can do for yourself. I felt so alone here in South Dakota. I knew approximately three people, I work for myself so I didn’t have coworkers, and it was freezing so I couldn’t be outside. During the beginning of October, I knew that I needed help when I caught myself unable to stop sobbing and hyperventilating in the shower. The next day is when I called my husband and told him I was going to go home. On my way home, I was sure that people would say, “Oh, poor Tessa. She can’t even live by herself. Here’s another thing she can’t do.” There has only been one person that said that to me. Everyone I have spoken to has said that the greatest thing you can do for yourself is to be surrounded by support and love and people willing and wanting to help. We as humans are not meant to be solitary creatures. We need community and love and support! What was I trying to prove by suffering through every day alone with my husband on another continent and my family 19 hours away? And honestly, who was I trying to prove myself to if everyone has been so supportive?
Me. I was trying to prove myself, to me.
It has taken me over a decade to unlearn many skills I adapted for survival. For most of my adolescence my one and only goal, was survival. That’s it. To wake up and to go to sleep and wake up again. To make it through every day alive. The truth is that for a lot of years, I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it to the next day. But now, at over 10 years later, my goals have changed. I wake up every day to THRIVE, not to simply survive. When I was trying to prove that I could be here by myself, I went back into survival mode. Was I doing it? Was I buying the groceries and paying the bills and remembering to eat? Yes (usually). But is that really the life I want to have when I could admit my weakness and seek help and community? I’d rather live a life where I actually feel alive.
On the prescription pads of people who have criticized my choices are the scribbled and unhelpful and disappearing cures for weakness. I have tried their cures: I have hobbies, I travel, I spend time outside, I have and continue to make friends. Their definition of weakness, though, is one that comes from fears and insecurities. It lies in the opinions of others. It is something they must hide day in and day out. It’s a character flaw. Their weakness is something to remain hidden. Or, so they tell themselves.
If there is a prize to be won for weakness, I will gladly accept the award. I will wear that crown like a badge of honor, because in my weakness I find my strength. I will seek help. I will not crumble under the weighty fear of inadequacy. There are people who put their dream of me on a pedestal - powerfully racing, persistently climbing, pursuing the next story. I am not who I used to be, and I thank God for that every day. The girl I was in years past would not have asked for help, she would not have sought community, she would not have confided in family, she would not have called friends in times of trials or joys. That girl, the girl critics pinned their hopes on, turned into a woman who has taken the reigns of her own story and rewritten her future - a future in which she is here and alive and better than before. If that makes me a sub-par pizza of person to a few who cannot see this extraordinary transformation, then so be it. I will accept the comments and the stares. I know that with every acknowledgment of my shortcomings, my formidable, unwavering spirt grows stronger.
In my weakness I find my strength, and I’m here to claim my crown.