The word flew out of his mouth like a rock and hit me square in the eyes. My own mouth dropped open in shock. I had never been called that in my life.
The label was pinned on me in the middle of a very messy relational mud puddle. I had asked this man, my respected elder-in-the-faith-and-church friend of 36 years to mediate a hurtful conversation that needed understanding and reconciliation. Instead his label dunked my head deeper into the puddle and declared the other person the winner.
It cost me the friend in the puddle. The ripple effect of that label also cost me in other ways, including the respect of a man I thought was wise, discerning, and safe.
His intention was to describe a weakness, to tell me I was thin-skinned and unable to handle truth-telling, reacting with inappropriate emotions. I realized I had a different label that could have been used, could have been affirming, if he really insisted on naming me.
I had made a mistake of trusting him. I asked a lot of friends if they thought "fragile" was an appropriate description of me. They were shocked as well. Every one of them ripped off the label and wrote a new one.
It helped to wear it as I began to heal and forgive, but I also did some soul searching while I rolled around the "fragile" rock, trying to keep my heart open to any softening effects it might offer. Most of the time I was irritated by it.
Then recently I read an article that revealed the "strong" label can cost too. It precipitated some more soul searching.
In his article, "The Myth of the 'Strong' Person," Nathan Feiles delves into the danger of mislabeling emotions and behaviors, particularly the "strong" label. The description can be misperceived as a good trait when in reality it is not. He says,
When people refer to a “strong” person, the traits that are being pointed to as “strong” are often closer to grandiosity, contempt, rigidity, stubbornness, aggressiveness, and desire to control others. All of these traits hold similarities to bullying.Feiles goes on to note that "people who are perceived as 'strong' tend to carry the demeanor of people who 'don’t take stuff from others.' This can create avoidance and fear from others, rather than openness and connection." He points out that if this is characteristic of one's overall personality, "strong" actually identifies a weakness which costs people relationally.
But there is a positive side to "strong," a label that would encourage "openness and connection." Feiles offers this list of qualities:
As I read Feiles' warning and saw his list, I had to be honest with myself. The truth is I land somewhere on a continuum between the negative and positive aspects of a "strong" person. But I also believe that I am traveling in the right direction, that Christ is forming in me a true and positive strength. The painful relational experiences have not derailed me though there have been long moments of pause. Instead God has been faithful to give light during the dark pauses and then transforming power to keep moving forward. Christ keeps on saving me.
- Ability to accept influence from others (perspectives, suggestions, etc.)
- Ability to delegate
- Sees others as equal
- Can channel maladaptive states of emotion (such as aggression and hostility) into productivity, rather than acting out.
- True to self and values, while still open to influence
- Ability to compromise
- Ability to talk with, and not talk over or demand from people
- Ability to recognize own weaknesses
With a deeper insight into what "strong" means to me, I would add this description as the summary of Feiles's list for the Christ follower: A strong person never lets go of her grip on Christ with one hand and her grip on fellow humans with the other, no matter how much they hurt her or grieve Christ.
As I re-examined the "fragile" label, I tried to identify a continuum that might offer a redemptive perspective. But I first had to embrace the word. And when I did, I saw Christ.
Christ began life on earth as a newborn baby, breathing in air, feeding on a breast, dependent on imperfect human parents. Fragile. He walked the dust, spilled the tears, acted on his rage and felt the longings of a human heart. Fragile. His earthly life ended on a cross, bleeding, thirsty, taunted, and suffering. Fragile.
He chose to become human so that we might become more human. He chose to become fragile so that we might see our own fragility.
I embrace fragile because I want to live life the way Christ did with every part of my being, including my emotions.
My friend made the mistake of judging my emotions rather than trying harder to understand what precipitated them. He also made the mistake of elevating the subhuman aspect of fragile in which we hide and protect our fragile hearts rather than reveal the pain another has caused.
So here's the paradox I embrace: I choose to be strong AND fragile. Like two perpendicular sticks that are moving toward one end at the same time, I choose to move on two continuums toward being strong and being fragile.
I choose to move towards Christ.