After being happy, being strong is one of our most common aspirations. We imagine riding fearlessly through life, able to brush off any hurt, facing danger without fear, resisting pressures and temptations without batting an eyelid. The fact that Professor Brené Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability has more than five million views seems to indicate that many of us feel a long way from that ideal and in need of advice on how to come to terms with our weakness.
Perhaps, as often, it is the ideal that is at fault. Seeing strength as some kind of impenetrable shield is unrealistic and counterproductive, since in the real world, no armour is foolproof and isolating ourselves from others is rarely a good idea. It is better to aim for a resilience that allows us to open up to the world knowing we have the ability to spring back from potential hurt and disappointment.
A similar elasticity may help in situations in which others – family members, friends, bosses – put pressure on us to do what suits them rather than ourselves. At those times, it is easy to feel weak and manipulated if we don’t stand our ground and to imagine that the thing to do is to be less yielding, less accommodating of people’s demands. Often we should indeed take more care of our own needs. But putting others first when it’s not in our interest can also be an expression of kindness and compassion. It would be a shame to lose those qualities in our eagerness to be assertive.
The tricky thing is that an action can be kind or weak depending on the context, and it’s not always easy to tell which is which. You think you’ve chosen to invite your mother-in-law for Christmas just to be nice, but you might be following some unconscious trigger to acquiesce.
Patterns can be more revealing of what’s really going on, so it’s worth paying attention to whether you’re always in the habit of giving in or the other person of taking advantage. Kindness is easier to tease apart from weakness if you know you can withhold it when necessary.
No one aspires to be weak. But Friedrich Nietzsche’s call to “resist all sentimental weakness” and his admission that he “often laughed at the weaklings” is disturbing. He appears to cross the line between a healthy desire to be strong and the fascist desire to eliminate the feeble, motivating some of the most shameful episodes in human history.
But this Nietzsche is a caricature, albeit one partly of his own making. Far from being a perfect übermensch, he was plagued by various illnesses throughout his life. So it makes sense that Nietzsche did not despise the weak, only the idea that weakness is good, rather than something to be overcome.
There should be nothing disturbing about this. If you become paralysed, for example, you do not believe your loss of movement is a good thing. Rather, you try to overcome the impairment as much as possible. The only weaklings Nietzsche derided were those who revel in their impotence and “think themselves good because their claws are blunt”. This is the “sentimental weakness” that denies the ineliminable element of competition and strife in life.
This brings out the true meaning of Nietzsche’s famous aphorism, “That which does not destroy me makes me stronger”. The strength talked about here is of course mental, not physical. The weakness we should fight is not the fragility of the flesh but a softness of the mind that too easily accepts its current situation and the values of society, whether they are truly good for us or not, and whether they can be changed or not.
Nietzsche’s übermensch is not therefore someone who has become invulnerable and omnipotent, nor a person who has no compassion for those who find themselves weak through no fault of their own. There is a poetic truth in his final collapse into syphilitic madness. In tears, he flung his arms around a horse he had seen being flogged, both man and beast enduring suffering neither could overcome. In that moment, Nietszche showed that we can love the weak without them or us loving their weakness.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in south-west England