Bending, Breaking & Other Acts of Bravery

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then . . . . I contradict myself;
I am large . . . . I contain multitudes.

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

I met a woman recently who described how she’d never felt so vulnerable, open and strong; how she cries more easily than she used to. I saw a truth in her, and I (re)learned something I had, at some level, always known: that embodying every version of yourself, the selfish and the kind, the joyous and the fearful, in fact every apparent contradiction; creates an ever expanding space for the strength of the many. This strength is not in spite of your anger, sadness or the person you were, but because of it.

Strong can mean impervious, a stronghold where nothing can breach the walls. This is the strength of castles and machines, not of the vastness of the natural world. Human strength of survival means adaptability, being open enough to let that which will change us in so we can continue to grow. The alternative is to live our lives in stasis–in our shells, where our potential will never be expressed.

This is not to say that there isn’t a kind of strength, too, in staying firm–in fighting for what you believe in or what you need to hold onto. It is to say the strength is various, though it seems our society holds aloft the strength of fight, of remaining unmoved. What if strength is a spectrum, a duality between hardness and growth? On one end, we stand facing the storm, stand our ground and remain true to ourselves or another. But the other end, where we allow ourselves to be moved by another? Where we allow ourselves to feel pain and to risk the unknown? Well, sometimes that’s the bravest thing I know. Sensitivity is a strength, because it enables growth. As we move into the fearful emptiness inside of us characterised by our “negative” emotions, we find the space for growth.

What does not change / is the will to change

The amorphous range of what we feel creates our whole self, and without the balance of our dichotomous feelings/selves our growth will always be unsteady. The more we close down our emotions or have them closed down by others, the less space we will have to grow into. And if we can’t grow, we become weak: always using energy in defense of the status quo, without the benefit of enlargement.

Pain – the empty burning of love lost, for example, as big as it feels, pushes the boundaries of how much you can feel. When the hurt has passed, you have more space to contain the multitudes of everyone you’ve ever been and everything you’ve ever felt. You grow into the space the pain has scoured out inside of you.

If you are highly sensitive, I have a feeling that those around you have continually pleaded with you to “toughen up,” and I have a feeling that it just doesn’t work. This is because you are stronger than you realise. This is because you are primed to grow. That which you feel does not make you weak. Your fear, anxiety and hatred are part of the human system of growth. When the time is right, if things are safe enough, you can begin to rely on these deep emotional roots and grow from your depth.

Protection & Growth Work in Relay

We need to move through incarnations of protection and growth throughout our lives. Like a seed in stasis, at certain points you have an absolute need for a hardened shell, but for you to grow that shell has to break. That is, you must take a well-timed risk if you are to flourish. You must risk the unheld hand in order to be met. However, we can only grow if the conditions are right: if you are in a hostile environment, revealing your vulnerable self just leaves you open to pain. In a good enough environment, though, insulation can become a trap. We need safety to grow, but walls can become prisons.

Breaking and moving are essential to vital processes at every scale, from the metamorphosis of a butterfly, to processing your own feelings. From learning to bear confrontation to plate tectonics:

We’re lucky because of these [tectonic] processes, where the plates separate and crack…[because] as a consequence of that, magmas form at deep levels in the Earth. They are brought to the surface, and they bring not only nutrients, but also water. And that is the essence of life.

– Jelle de Boer, geologist: a leading expert on volcanoes and earthquakes from On Being

A life is the constant flux enacted between movements of protection, reaching in and out for connection, letting things in, holding still, bursting open. Sometimes we get stuck in protecting ourselves (and thus not growing) because our past leaks into our present–because quite psycho-logically we have learnt what the world is from our formative experiences. Maybe it’s safe for you to open a little now, maybe not, but it might be worth checking…

To reteach a thing its lovelinessbud

What if you are this plant, and all that we allow ourselves to see is how vulnerable you are in this moment? How, so easily, you could be picked or knocked down. In this view, we fail to recognize that it was the strength of your growth which broke through. Stasis was part of the process, but you did not remain unmoved. You risked living. We sometimes need to be re-taught and reminded of all we have survived. All the beautiful striving we’ve done, despite the surrounding indifference.

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing

Galway Kinnel, “Saint Francis and the Sow”

To shift from protecting yourself into growing, you need to feel safe enough to share how you feel in the world. You need to be seen as you are, and be retold you are lovely (in words or the unspoken). Then, cautiously, you can touch the boundaries around you, see if they can slide a bit further this way or that and let that which will change you in…

My affinities are infinite

Once I grieved for someone and, for a while, I did everything I could not to feel the crushing imploding empty space. But as I learned to stay with this grief, feel it, fall into it, I learned how much I can love. I feel fierce when I love someone, and I love often. I’ve sometimes stopped caring if someone loves me back – quite simply because I’ve realised that I love the part of me which loves fiercely. And when I love fiercely, I have strength, and it burns in flame and warmth. This strength is only possible through sensitivity (not exclusively the domain of HSPs), to allow what is near to become close.

We are equipped to learn, grow and step into new spaces where things are unknown again. If we allow our roots – our incredible range of past and present emotions – with us, we can step forward with the rich wisdom of all our incantations steadying our way. There is no fixed way of being, only rest and change.

I am involved with the palpable
as well
as that impalpable,

where I walk, mysteries catch at my heels
& cling
like cockle-burrs.
My affinities are infinite, & from moment to moment
I propagate new symmetries, new

hinges, new edges.

Ronald Johnson, “Letters to Walt Whitman”

2 thoughts on “Bending, Breaking & Other Acts of Bravery

  1. I love it Michelle. Especially your piece about strength. I often see clients who think that they want to build physical “strength” which means in their mind fixing and holding. The difference is incredible when then discover that strength means being able to yield in a way that is right for them and their body.

    Oh, and I love the bit about people telling you to toughen up – just because you don’t meet their external perception of what “tough” is. Interesting how tough and strong are perceived in our world….

  2. Thanks Maureen. Gentleness can be such a powerful strength – both mentally and physically…

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