Monday, February 9, 2015

Where the Strong Lose

Subtitled, "An imaginary conversation between Strength and the World," or "Why I wince when people thank me for writing strong female characters."

I attempt to write realistic characters, but I would never set out to write strong ones, because being strong sucks, and I mostly love the children of my imagination. Being strong means never getting the cake, and who wants that in life?

What cake, you ask? (Reasonable question.) In one of the earliest episodes of CSI, a character made a sad observation that stuck with me. "I'm not the guy who gets a cake in the break room on his last day," he said, "I'll pack up and leave, and no one will even notice I'm gone." Some guys get cake and backslaps and farewell hugs, and some guys aren't missed at all, even if they're perfectly well-liked and accepted, admired, respected, part of the team, and so on.

Bear with the analogy here. The strong don't get cake. Not on their last day, not on their birthday, not on their lowest days. Why not? Because cake is for nice people. For soft people. For positive, cuddly people who like celebrations and hugs and bright happy things. Not for strong, hard people.

Here's how the conversation goes:

The World & The Strong
The strong say to the world, "Assertiveness and brashness do not make us strong. They mean we are practiced at hiding weakness. Disdain for convention is a surrender to the painful knowledge that we can never achieve it. Effective defenses are not strength. They are an ingrained response to assault. We are afraid. We fight because we've seen too many others ground beneath the boots of society, and we want to live. This is not strength. It's desperation."

No, the world says. You appear poised, calm, cool & collected,  Self-contained and self-assured. Independent, needing nothing from others. (Proud, some say. Stuck-up. Know-it-all. Argumentative, even. Uppity. Strident. Pushy. Negative. Critical. Bitter. Oh, yes. There's a whole thesaurus of flaws that trail along behind strength like a sticky fringe.)

The strong say, "Those adjectives do not make us strong. They are the bricks of the walls we stand against. They expose how seldom we have had the luxury of trusting someone else at our backs.  We ask and are denied until we are exhausted with the asking, until we learn to do without. That does not make us strong. It makes us lonely. We are soft, vulnerable and damaged behind our defenses, like every human who ever lived."

No, the world says. You look strong, so you are. The role of the strong is to brace up others before they fall. To hold, not to be held. To support, not to be supported. The soft need care and nurturing and support. You cannot be both. 

The strong ask, "But everyone needs support.  Everyone needs nurturing, and care, and defenders to step up and offer aid to those who falter. Why must some scrape for what others are given freely? Are we not all human? Do we not all bleed the same?"

No, the world says. The soft ask and are answered because they are who they are. For the strong to declare itself weak is a betrayal.  Strong people who cry for help are selfish, lazy, attention-seekers, not soft. You're strong and selfish. Strong and lazy. Strong and mean. Strong and undeserving. Without the proper trappings--without dancing the right dance, showing the right face, wearing the right costume--you cannot be soft.

"No," the strong say. "The soft can be strong, and the strong are soft inside too. We all hurt inside, we all cry. We all need to hear that existence is not a waste of time and space."

Too bad, the world says. No one likes a whiner. Stop crying and get back to being strong. Buck up. Put on the happy face. Be positive. You're taking away time and energy from the people really deserve it. Denial is what you deserve if you stray from your appointed role.

 It's a horrific paradox. Strong people can never be anything else because they never can be anything else. The sick part is that "strong" in this sense is an external label. It sits right between the shoulder blades like a fucking target. I know this intimately well. I was labeled strong before I hut puberty.

I am about as strong as a bowl of mashed potatoes, but I'll never get rid of the damned label, because externals are all that matter. As long as it's there, I am doomed. Help is not offered without me laying out specifics first, explicitly and frequently. Being strong means no one helps without being asked--and asked, and asked, until the asking sucks all meaning from the resulting aid. Even then, only a few even reach out. Because why would I need help? I'm strong. I can take it. 

These are fine cakes.
Are you seeing the circular argument there? Often that noose chokes me until I have to abandon the world for the cold solace my own company. Being left to limp along by myself, injured and hurting, is less painful when I'm alone. Life still hurts, but that burden of pain is easier to bear when I'm not surrounded by people who are helping each other...and not me.

That's not how life works for everyone. Honestly, it's not how I'd like to cope. It's sometimes the only choice my externals leave me. All the people in the world saying, "Be yourself! Don't accept your labels! Break out of the box!" cannot ever affect how other people react, and as long as I'm true to myself -- strong, hard, negative and all the rest -- I am un-nurtured.

Because I don't deserve nurture? No. I reject that conclusion. Because most people are conditional about acceptance even when they swear they aren't? Because it's easier to turn away than offer a hand when there's no ready reward of soft, sweet gratitude?  Yeah, I can get behind those arguments.

Strength loses out on cake. I like cake, dammit. I'm starving for it, most days, and it pisses me off that cake is reserved for people who "behave properly." And because I am strong,  I'm not afraid to say so, even though that honesty ensures the flipping cake gets farther away every time I look.

 Just saying.

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At February 11, 2015 at 4:34 PM , Blogger Bryan said...

I can't argue against your experience, because it's yours, but.. Noelle, my wife, is one of the strongest people I know. Sometimes I'm amazed at how much it takes to knock her down. What I've learned from seeing what she goes through is simple.

Sometimes, you just take the fucking cake.

If you're the one who has to be strong - for whatever reason, and for any value of 'strong', however it gets defined - if you don't have someone to support you when you need it, then you owe it to those you are being strong for to take care of yourself. To walk away and find solace on your own terms. To have some cake, and maybe a rum & coke.

And to any who dispute your right to cake, say this:

"A truly strong person does not need the approval of others any more than a lion needs the approval of sheep." (Vernon Howard)

At February 11, 2015 at 6:20 PM , Blogger K.M. Herkes said...

Absolutely. You are absolutely right. I can and do get myself plenty of cake. All the time, I make sure I get cake. I am a self-serve cake master. (I do love a good food analogy) What occasionally gets my goat and leads to rants like this is that I don't want to ALWAYS HAVE TO take my own fucking cake. I want someone to BRING me a nice, big moist delicious slice slathered in diabetes-inducing rich frosting. Without. Me. Asking. And I believe with every fiber of my being that I deserve to be given some cake now and then as much as those who can't/won't/don't need to take it for themselves. That is what does not happen, and in my heart, I am a selfish toddler, not a lion.

At February 11, 2015 at 6:23 PM , Blogger K.M. Herkes said...

Also, if I had sticker-comments for the blog, you would get applause and extra props for the rum & coke embellishment. Because cake does go well with froufrou drinks.


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