“To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.” ~Criss Jami
“You have to be strong.”
Those were five words I heard without end after my father was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer on Black Friday 2012—a day that couldn’t have been more aptly named.
In the months following, I marched, ran, skipped, crept, stumbled, crawled, and dragged myself through the darkest valley of my life. This was uncharted territory. This was an unprecedented season for us.
My dad was a fitness junkie, running and biking every morning, performing aerobics daily like a champ, and going for the occasional swim when the mood struck. The possibility of cancer had never arrested our attention—why would it?
Like so many others, I believed I’d have my dad for decades to come, that I would see his salt-and-pepper hair gradually transform to powder white as the crinkles stretching from the corner of his eyes grew in number.
The usual questions that plague souls affected by cancer surfaced, as if some clarion call had gone out to the nether world. Questions like:
Will the surgery be successful? (It was.) Will the oncologist order chemotherapy? (He did.)
When will this end? When will my dad know peace and strength again? When will our lives go back to normal?
The answers to those questions were a long time coming, until my dad was moved to ICU and put on life support in early September 2013, his organs failing.
“Be strong,” came that ceaseless whisper. “Be strong,” well-wishers said. “Be strong. Be strong. Be strong.”
And in the nine months leading up to that ICU transfer, I had been strong. I had remained unmoved and unaffected by any bad news, choosing to believe in a different outcome—besides, one must yet hope.
I was like the unshakeable lighthouse tower you often see in paintings, standing tall in the midst of a tumultuous storm, gray skies, roaring waves, and angry sea breeze everywhere.
Then one day, the feat of being that strong tower was simply too much to bear. I’d built a dam to keep back the emotions that threatened to overwhelm me, but that dam couldn’t possibly stand the weight of those emotions forever. It gave way.
I sobbed like I’d never sobbed before in my mother’s arms. And so long as we’re being honest, I’d say I sobbed every day thereafter.
This expression I’d so feared, this display of vulnerability I had for so long resisted and avoided, had at long last caught up with me. Yet I felt no shame or embarrassment. I felt no anger with myself or disappointment in my supposed weakness.
Instead, I felt other things.
It was then that I realized that in my efforts to be strong, I had been denying myself the very feelings I’d wanted to experience all along.
Too often, we build walls around ourselves in the midst of grief, pain, or challenges, inflating ourselves up to be proud people who don’t need anyone’s help, people who are getting by just fine, people who are strong enough to weather the storm on their own.
We close ourselves off to feeling anything in the name of self-preservation. We distance ourselves from emotions that scare us because of how weak, vulnerable, incapable, or unable they may make us seem to our loved ones.
However, it’s only through allowing ourselves to embrace that weakness and feel those daunting emotions that we invite love in to strengthen us.
It’s actually a beautiful thing for someone to be weak for that reason, because in that weakness, we rely and depend on others to build us up again, to make us strong, to comfort and encourage us.
An incredible bond is established between you and another person when you embrace your weakness. In that moment, transparency, honesty, and open communication win.
Not only have you both reached a new level of personal growth and grown in your intimacy, but you’ve also given that individual an incredible gift: the opportunity to demonstrate their friendship, loyalty, and love for you by being there, by being a friend, by being present, and by enacting love.
When we bottle our emotions in and suppress them, however, never letting anyone see into our soul, then we are denying others an amazing opportunity to show up for us.
We are denying our relationships the opportunity to expand, evolve, and grow to a new level. And we are essentially stopping the flow of love between us and others—life-saving love that has the potential to give us more strength than we ever thought possible.
So I made the decision to embrace my emotions and whatever weaknesses happened to visit me, to welcome the vulnerable position that would put me in.
If someone wanted to hold me while I cried, I let them.
If someone wanted to be a listening ear, I spoke from the depths of my heart.
If someone wanted to take me away from the hospital scene for a good meal, I didn’t decline the invitation.
If someone asked me how I was doing, I answered with honesty, even if it meant admitting that I was hurting and devastated.
Again and again, I felt the flow of love between myself and those around me. It was uplifting and intoxicating; empowering and encouraging. It was love like I’d never seen it in action before—the type of love that can only be perfected in our very weaknesses.
I had a role model throughout it all: my dad.
I don’t even wish I could tell you he faced cancer stone-faced and unmoved by the unending dirges of prognoses.
Instead, when the pain was too much to bear, when the figurative nights were blackest, when there seemed to be no light penetrating the all-encompassing darkness of cancer, my dad would cry, he would pray for one normal day, and he would openly talk with me about the weakness he felt.
But it wasn’t weakness I saw. In those moments, when he opened himself so entirely and became vulnerable before me, I saw only strength. I saw only courage. And on the morning my dad’s heart beat for the last time, the sun laying bricks of gold across his hospital room while I held his hand in mine, I saw only inspiring beauty.
Even now, as I write this, it’s with tears painting trails down my face. I embrace what we might call weakness because I know now that it’s in my weakness that I find strength. It’s in my struggle that I find determination; it’s in my challenges that I find perseverance; and it’s in my vulnerability that I find love, peace, and the will to go on.
Have you been spending too much time hiding behind walls in an effort to be strong? Have you been distancing yourself from others, fearing they will think you weak? Have you kept your emotions at arm’s length because they intimidate you, scare you, or fill you with uncertainties?
It’s time to give yourself permission to feel. It’s time to embrace the very vulnerability you shun and in doing so, discover the love, joy, and peace that waits for you on the other side.
In the end, it’s through our weaknesses that we become strong again.
In loving memory of my dad, ‘Bear.’ 04-01-1952 – 09-15-2013