Weakness as strength is a Taoist thought. Lao Tzu said, “Nothing in the world is weaker than water but against the hard and the strong nothing outdoes it.” And Wang Tao said, “Eight feet of water can float a thousand-ton ship. Six feet of leather can control a thousand-mile horse. Thus does the weak excel the strong.”
We often think of these kinds of aphorisms as cute even if somewhat irrelevant to our lives. Or we consider them semantic games. They’re actually designed to get us to think in different ways, to see the world in ways we hadn’t previously conceived.
But in a broader sense, there’s a lot of truth to the idea that weakness is actually strength. Consider, for example, a sports team. I helped coach a seventh- and eighth-grade co-rec soccer team this fall. We experienced some wins and some losses. And we learned a lot from both.
We learned that we could be successful by utilizing the sides of the field, by switching directions instead of just trying to march straight up the pitch each time we possessed the ball. This was a lesson we learned in both victory and defeat. When we were beaten, it was usually because the other team did that better than we did. And when we won, we generally did it better.
Yet our team struggled with this concept for most of the season. Their first instinct was to play the ball forward, toward the opposing team’s goal, even if they had to fight through half a dozen defenders. Only near the end of the season, after a painful loss to an all-boys team, did they grasp that maybe pushing the ball forward every single time they touched it might not be the best strategy.
Maybe the lesson – that you don’t necessarily want to meet strength with strength – will stick with them.
Palm trees bend with the wind, so they’re often able to withstand hurricanes. As trees go, they’re not particularly strong. Yet by yielding, they survive when stronger trees are toppled. Similarly, when we recognize our weaknesses, we are afforded the opportunity to craft alternative solutions.
This flexibility of mind is a strength. It’s a way of adjusting ourselves or the world around us to achieve a goal despite not being able to do so via the straight path. And sometimes there is no adaptation to be made. Sometimes our strength lies in accepting our weakness.
The athlete at the end of a career. The movie star whose external beauty fades. Too many hang on too long, viewing themselves as strong by putting off the inevitable, not realizing that their actions are causing them to sink into objects of pity and sadness.
But we’re all going to lose in the end. None of us are getting out of this existence alive. Some of us have a better idea of how and when we’re going to be exiting than others, but none of us is ultimately going to win.
Whether enduring an incurable, fatal disease or simply approaching our final exit, we can choose to fight it with fear and anger or face it with dignity. Dylan Thomas wrote: “Do not go gentle into that good night … rage against the dying of the light.”
I get it. I understand the desire for life, for success, for glory, for that one last moment in the sun. But embracing or at least accepting the inevitable, that is real strength.
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