I was having a conversation recently with a friend about the prospect of having to leave France relatively soon to move to the States. I talked about how sad the whole experience would be — bittersweet, of course, but with a certain emphasis on the bitter — after all that I had constructed here. In so many ways, it has become my home, and contains so many places and people that I will never be able to take with me, who will have permanently created an empty space in my heart. I think often about the day when I will have to actually say goodbye, and my stomach turns over on itself. I don’t want to go.
“Just be strong,” he told me, “It’ll be okay.”
And I thought about this for a long time, what “strength” would actually denote when it comes to such emotional undertakings. In most aspects of life, a certain stoicism about the more difficult things we encounter is considered a positive, a sign that we’re coming into adulthood. But strength is often a very concrete, physical thing. It’s standing upright, it’s holding back a tear, it’s allowing someone to rest on your shoulder by not resting on them. Strength is a kind of resignation to the inevitability of what is happening around you, creating a port in the storm with your reliability in a world that is changing too quickly. When you’re strong, you don’t allow yourself to wallow in any kind of pity, you cut sadness off at the impasse and don’t move an inch.
There is a deep need for strength within us, for someone to reassure us that things are okay when everything is crumbling. We can’t all lean without something to lean on, and if we each hold our heads high just a little bit, everyone has an easier time. I know that to be strong in my situation — as it always has been for things which brought great sadness — is to be quiet, stoic, and appreciative of the positives. I still have my health, my youth, my future. There is good to everything, and to discreetly appreciate all of these things while minimizing the amount of emotion I let escape would be ideal. It would mean that I am strong, and am handling this like an adult.
But is strength, at least in the emotional sense, really always the sign of a deeper maturity? Sure, no one is helped by a complete succumbing to pain, but is there not a place in these moments for a certain kind of weakness? Weakness means crying, yes, but what is wrong with crying? Is it so taboo to be honest in confronting our pain? This weakness means letting others know just how important they are, how much they matter. Part of being weak is telling others, in whichever way we’re capable, that we need them. We are saying that we can’t do this by ourselves, that the love and support of those around us is essential for climbing the more difficult obstacles.
And don’t we want to be needed? Don’t we feel a strange kind of relief when someone around us is able to admit, truly, what is actually wrong — and acknowledge that they need a shoulder to lean on? We berate others for responding “I’m fine” to a “How are you?” when they are clearly anything but. We want them to be honest, because denying there’s a problem is the only certain way never to fix it. And yet, when pain gets too great and we are truly at a moment of emotional weakness, we are supposed to be the strong, silent type? It seems almost unfair to expect of us, at a moment when feeling the full weight of pain is most necessary, to squash it all down into some hidden-away compartment.
The truth is, I want to feel my pain. I want to feel the sadness and the near-burning nostalgia of leaving a place and a people I love, because it deserves it. Everything beautiful that we experience in life, when it suffers or comes to an end, is going to be filled with this kind of aching sorrow. But that is a good thing, because it means that it had significance in your life, that it cannot be easily dismissed like so many other things you let roll off your back. To be sad when the end comes is to pay homage to everything that was great, to all that it gave you, to who you are because of it. And yes, it is “weak” to cry and write letters and talk about your sadness. It is “weak” to rest your head on someone’s chest and welcome being consoled. It is “weak” to focus, at least temporarily, on the pain you feel.
But it is also wonderful. It is a moment in which you feel alive, human, and fully connected to the things that you touch in life. There are few moments where we lose or change or move on from something great, and those moments do make us weak. To be strong and silent in the face of them — to deny that they have touched you and will leave a great absence in your life — is to dismiss its importance. You may find yourself needing the support of friends and family, to be reassured and have your hand held. You may need to be reminded of what is good, and that the pain will subside. You may need to lean on someone. And that’s okay.
One day, someone will need to lean on you. They will have a hurt in their life that makes them feel everything they may have been trying to numb. And that day, you will be strong. Because strength isn’t a quality that we are all expected to embody individually when a bad thing befalls us. Strength is something we all share, that we give and take as needed, that we loan out with the intention of borrowing back later on. And when we are the yin to that yang, when we are crying instead of consoling — that is fine, too. Because a life without sadness and loss is a life without happiness and worth, and we all deserve to feel the full beauty of our lives.