Once, a very long time ago, in a very far away place, an old, unmarried king with no heirs worried about who would take his place as head of the nation. He’d served the kingdom well, for many decades, and knew intimately its strengths and weaknesses. The king knew that, in order to survive attack by neighboring adversaries who eagerly awaited the king’s demise, the kingdom would need a certain kind of ruler. For many months, the king paced the castle’s gilded hallways, read books about leadership, and spent many a night tossing and turning. He was an only child with no nephews or sons upon whom he could bequeath the title, no lad upon whom he could bestow advise or lessons. The king’s wise men wanted him to select the strongest knight, but the king knew that strength was only one quality a successful leader would need. Strength wasn’t the only quality.
As his health continued to fail, doctors ordered the king restricted to bed. He could feel his aged body sinking into a state of decline and knew that time was of the essence. One night, as he lay listening to the night owl outside his window and staring at the constant stars, an idea crept into his weary mind. He knew what he needed to do. That very night, he summoned his most trusted servant from sleep and ordered that he write out a proclamation.
There would be a contest.
Any of the knights who had already proven loyalty to the king and the kingdom would be eligible. The winner of the contest would stay with the king, be privy to advise and, upon his death, his crown. To win, the knight would be required to spend a week alone in the forest and would then need to describe the sound of the forest to the king. The king’s servant protested, saying all of the knights would be able to do this. The servant protested, saying that the contest was weak and flawed, that it would not be able to prove a man’s strength. But the king insisted, returning, “The knights have already proven their strength by virtue of being a knight. Their loyalty, courage and strength is not in doubt and is not what is being tested.”
“Then, Your Highness, what are you trying to prove? Shouldn’t you then just pick the wealthiest of the knights, or one from the most prestigious family?”
Still, the king insisted that the contest would take place immediately. One by one, knights appeared in front of His Majesty. Their names were taken down on a scroll and they were sent into the vast forest to be alone for a week. One by one, the knights returned and faced the king. When asked to describe the sound of the forest, the knights described the sounds of the cuckoos singing, the leaves rustling, the bees humming, the crickets chirping, the grass blowing, the wind whistling. His Majesty was not impressed. One by one, he sent the knights away. Then, one day, a very young knight appeared before him. The lad had only been a knight for less than a year, but he was strong and brave. He’d saved the king once from an arrow intended to kill; he’d proven his devotion to the king and the kingdom by volunteering to test the king’s drink. “If it’s poisoned, better I die than the king,” he’d said.
“Do you think you can describe the sound of the forest?” the king asked.
“I will try,” the knight returned.
The king sent him off, the hope of finding someone truly worthy slowly smoldering in his heart.
During the first night, the young knight listened intently. He could hear the same sounds that the other knights reported. Animals rustling through the underbrush, the wind stirring the branches of the trees. The second night, he could hear only the same thing. Deep into the darkness, the knight felt apprehensive. He didn’t hear any unusual sounds, he didn’t hear any sounds that had not already been presented to the king. The third day dawned and he remained perfectly still, listening intently. All he could hear were the animals. But, then. As the sun rose on the sixth day, he opened his eyes and stared hard into the forest. There was a sound, a quiet sound, he’d not heard before. He strained his ears, widened his eyes, and focused his whole body on the noise. Surely, this was the sound the king could hear.
Upon returning to the palace, the knight was led into the king’s chambers. The king lay on the bed, pale, with cracked lips. Fever wasn’t far away now. When he saw the knight, he struggled to move into an upright position. “Can you describe the sound of the forest, boy?”
The knight replied: “Your Majesty, when I listened most closely, I could hear the unheard: the sound of flowers opening, the sound of the sun warming the earth, and the sound of the grass drinking the morning dew.”
The king relaxed back into his pillows, nodding approvingly. “Yes. Yes, my boy. Hearing the unheard is the most important task of a king. People speak many words, but the words are only superficial. There is always more that they don’t say — unexpressed pain, deepest desires of their hearts, complaints they won’t voice. Being able to hear and to respond to these things is the only way to truly inspire the people, unite them, and meet their true needs.”
The king declared the young knight winner of the contest. The knight stayed by the king’s side day in and day out, soaking in all that the king could tell him. When the king tired, the knight wandered out into the streets, meeting the people of the kingdom, listening to what they said and hearing what they didn’t say. Finally, the day came when the king removed his crown and placed it upon the knight’s head, giving him reign of his beloved kingdom. When the old king drew his last breath, the kingdom mourned, but their hopes were restored by the newly crowned king who would rule not only with strength and bravery but also wisdom and compassion.
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The other day someone who knows the headlines of my life’s story (but not the bylines) casually mentioned she’d just finished reading Broken, a very personal book about a fifteen-year-old who suffers from abuse, bullying and suicide ideology. She concluded by saying how strong she thought I was.
It’s an adjective I have heard before to describe me. I always shrug it off, thinking about the multitude of ways I am definitely not strong. To me, strength is not defined by the crisis one faces. It’s also not defined by how many crisis one faces. By either of those definitions, the word strong loses its uniqueness because everyone alive would be considered strong. Who hasn’t gone through multiple crisis? Even mass murderers could fall into the strong category if those were its only definitions. But, no. For me, real strength is not about the mountains climbed, it’s about you: what is your typical reaction to those mountains?
When faced with something horrendous, I go mute. It’s almost as if I can feel the fortress that surrounds my heart barricading its gates. If anyone asks, I’m fine. I smile, no matter what it costs me to do so, and I develop tunnel vision: forget tomorrow, let’s survive today becomes my mantra. I read the Bible, and my concordance, make notes in its margins and beg for His presence until I feel surrounded. I submerge myself in the stories of others, others who really are strong, stories shaken with so much heartbreak my own mountain looks like a tiny hill. And I write. I take whatever mountain I am staring at and show it, through writing stories that are very hard for me to write, that I have already crawled over a bigger mountain. I write letters to my daughters which always reminds me of what I am here for. And then I repeat those things day in and day out until, eventually, I don’t feel quite so panicked by life; I repeat until I’ve reached the other side of that mountain. Scripture, stories of everyday people whose lives include my worst nightmares, a blue Bic pen and my daughters keep me from jumping off the deep end.
In the end, then, I’m not strong, I am blessed that I have tried and true ways of stumbling through crisis. Blessed to have had a mother and a sister who encouraged me and believed in me. Blessed to have grown up knowing prayer is powerful. Blessed to have been loved. Without those blessings, I do not think I would have weathered the storms; I doubt very strongly I would still be here.
See, the truth is, our character is made up of a million different reactions that are influenced by more than we consciously are aware. It’s made up of all the things we don’t say because it’s what we don’t say that will ultimately determine how we react to the next minute. We share with others what matters to us. If, then, we don’t speak when hurting, that’s training the mind to believe that our pain is irrelevant. And that belief is what will prevent us from speaking up the next time we are hurt. Twenty times later and then you’re stuck, bound by a belief you know logically is erroneous but ultimately believe nonetheless.
Strength is consciously making yourself vulnerable by opening up to those around you. Strength is choosing to see every dark cloud, every new mountain as a character-defining opportunity rather than as an immutable obstacle. Remembering that this too shall pass and that even if it’s eclipsed by pain at the moment, preventing you from seeing it, joy does exist: this takes true strength.
I started writing this post because I haven’t felt strong lately. Days when I am not sure I am doing enough or being enough for my girls. Days when nothing I do seems good enough. Days where I feel inept, like a toddler playing pretend at being a grown-up. Days where, if one more thing gets added to my plate, I think I will collapse. I see others and think that they have it all-together and their genuine confidence discourages any self-defeating internal voices.
Awhile back, maybe a year or two ago, I read a story that really touched me. You can watch a video of it here . It’s about a soldier who rescued a little girl from Hurricane Katrina. When the soldier rescued this little girl, she gave him a hug that was captured by a photojournalist. Years later, the soldier wanted to find the little girl because he wanted her to know that she had saved him. From looking at the picture of this soldier, you would not think that he was hurting — but he was. So much so that a simple hug impacted his life so much that he tracked down the girl who gave it to him years after it happened just to thank her. My point is: none of us, not even brave soldiers who walk into combat or dangerous situations without flinching, are really all that strong. In fact, we’re all quite fragile, walking headlong into every tomorrow, praying and hoping that nothing earth-shattering will rock our worlds. Instead of being scary, it gives me courage because it’s a reminder that none of us are really alone.
I like to pretend I’m strong but it takes more courage to say the hard things, to chase the dreams, to be fragile because that means living life with arms and heart wide open, accepting the hard times with the joyous ones. Accepting that I’m actually not that strong means giving myself permission to feel things—-all things—fully. It gives me more of a chance to be compassionate towards others, a better friend, because it gives me more time to focus my attention on those I love instead of making sure the heart’s fortress is strong enough. The knight was able to win the throne and to become a worthy king because he recognized that an imperfection of the human nature is to keep quiet what we really desire and need; knowing this helped him slow down long enough to pay attention to what was being left unsaid. Being authentically me, whether that means writing an emotional blog post no one but me ever gets or taking time to hide under the covers and re-read a Judith McNaught or Elizabeth Lowell love story without feeling the need to justify it or tapping someone I trust on the shoulder to say, “Hey; I might need a little help” will build a tapestry of strength stronger and more reliable than a mask ever will.
Fragility blossoms into strength: I think I’m going to frame this, for never has there been a truer oxymoron.