It took 24 (and ¾ years) but for the first time, at the end of last year, I saw what real strength was.
It was one of those moments where it didn’t matter how many times I was told, it wasn’t until I saw it for myself that the message sank in. It was a lightbulb moment that left me feeling dizzy as I recalibrated. It taught me how misguided I’ve been about my approach to life.
As a person I’m hyper-conscious I’ve won the lottery. I have no physical and mental disabilities, a healthy and loving family, formal education and job I enjoyed. I have the added benefit of the patriarchy and white privilege.
This awareness led me to set a challenge at the beginning of 2021: I only ever wanted to be happy.
I felt it was a requirement. There are so many people in worse positions who are happy so who am I to be so fortunate and not be? I feared coming across as the person who won millions in the lottery then complained about the tardiness of their private driver.
I thought if successful I could be a source of inspiration for others. A person who they turn to for help to improve their well-being.
My plan to achieve this involved the mental gymnastics of reference points. Hedonic adaptation is one of human’s greatest gifts but also a curse. It’s the reason after buying a new car, the novelty wears off after a few months or so. It’s also how we can adapt to terrible turns of events, the loss of loved ones, disabilities or financial ruin.
Hedonic adaptation is the constant resetting of these reference points.
The challenge I set myself was whenever I began to feel my mood dip, to try and manually reset my reference points and concentrate on all the good fortune I did have, rather than what I didn’t.
In the midst of lockdown this year it was put to the ultimate test. When everyone’s spirits were in a fight not to be broken, I thought I’d be the one who puts on a brave face. To continue looking for positives and prove that it was possible not to be miserable.
It’s only after a job group interview last week that I realised I couldn’t have been more wrong. My behaviour wasn't a show of strength and a source of inspiration for others. In fact, it likely had the opposite effect, I pushed them away by being so unrelatable.
The interview opened my eyes to the source of real strength: vulnerability.
Over the course of two hours I had the privilege to learn the stories of nine other men. Not just their work history and their interests, but the path that brought them to where they were today. About why they were so driven to do healthy masculinity work with teenage boys.
I learnt about Blue who identified as they/them, a self-proclaimed queer who is driven to teach heathy mascuinity due to the suicide of one of their close friends. An individual whose environment became so toxic that he didn’t see living worth it anymore.
I learnt how Stefan, a six foot three guy with biceps the size of my chest, found himself with two bulging discs in his back as a result of the lengths he was driven to prove his masculinity to his friends.
These stories shared the dark side of humanity, however Blue and Stefan didn’t tell them looking for compassion, they told them from a place of empowerment. They wanted to prevent anyone else from finding themselves down the tortured path they did. Rather than shy away from the reality they found themselves in, they’d chosen to acknowledge it every day that they go to work. Vulnerabilities that once ate away at their lives, now became their source of inspiration.
By doing so, despite knowing them for less than an hour I also sat there inspired to do the work alongside them.
Then, like a lightning bolt, it hit me. I realised how misguided I’d been. That to be happy with awareness of your greatest vulnerabilities is a far greater sign of strength, then pretending nothing is wrong.
One is empowering, the other is being delusional.
The irony of my foolish attempt to only ever be happy is I lost access to that greatest strength. Vulnerability stems from your fears and anxieties, so in my attempt to avoid those emotions it became impossible for me to ever be truly vulnerable. To ever truly capture this source of strength.
I now sit here today and acknowledge that I’m scared. Scared that I’ll never be good enough. Scared of all the mistakes I’ll make. Scared that I won’t be loved. However, rather than allow that fear to control me, I’ll embrace it. I’ll show up not because I’ve done mental gymnastics to avoid it, but because I’m human and my imperfections are part of who I am.
And maybe this time I become a little source of inspiration along the way.
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