Friday, April 10, 2015

What makes you strong?

What does the word strength make you think of? Maybe someone who is physically strong, like the giants you see in Strong Man competitions, or a bodybuilder like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime? Perhaps you think about strength in numbers, like all the bricks that make up a house, or the massed ranks of a Roman legion like the opening scene of the film Gladiator. Perhaps you think of someone with an inner strength who has overcome tragedy or illness in some way, shape or form. Whatever it is, I'm sure we all wonder what makes us strong at different times in our lives.
"What does the word strength make you think of?"
I love a good documentary, it's something that feeds my input and learner themes, and a particularly good series I've watched recently is the BBC's Secrets of the Castle. This is all about immersive history, and focuses on the real-life building of a medieval style castle in the Burgundy region of France, using 13th century techniques and tools. It's a 25 year project and they're around 18 years in. I learnt from this documentary that for medieval castle builders, a feature they used to give their castles strength was to make the walls very thick. Particularly in the towers, the walls might be metres deep. This was to withstand assault from rocks thrown by trebuchets and catapults when the castle was under attack.

It's good to have our corners knocked off!
Another trick they used was to build the towers with cylindrical walls - by avoiding corners the wall would be able to distribute the load in all directions from missiles, therefore having less weak points. Like a castle, sometimes we need depth to be strong - deeply held beliefs about ourselves and the world around us that can withstand difficult seasons and boulders being thrown at us. Similarly, it can be a benefit to have our corners knocked off and our rough edges smoothed! 

For various reasons I chose to study Civil Engineering at University many years ago, and although in hindsight I think I made the choice lightly, it proved to be a valuable degree to gain, although it didn't come easy. On my course I learnt (or at least was taught) a reasonable amount about structural strength. Whatever you are building the starting point is the material you are going to use.
"Like a castle, sometimes we need depth to be strong"
Clearly different materials have different properties, and the choice of material influences the way you go about your design. Concrete, as a good example, is brilliant in compression - it can take heavy loads - but it's not good in tension, breaking when stretched. However it also very durable. That's why most concrete design these days is reinforced concrete. To help the concrete be better in tension, steel bars are cast inside to provide the tensile strength it's lacking. The resultant composite maintains the inherent positive qualities of concrete, like it's durability and compressive strength, but with added strength where it's needed.

Like concrete I can list lots of things in my life that are weaker than I'd like, areas where I break more easily under stress or tension. But I also believe that in many of those areas we can add metaphorical re-bar, reinforcement to strengthen us. This will look different to all of us, but might include being accountable to a friend, finding others to help us, or consciously adding more positive elements to our lives - more sleep, healthier food, more exercise for example. 

Steel rebar... not adamantium!
Less scientific a metaphor is the story of Wolverine in the Marvel Comics universe. Possessing a superhuman ability to heal himself, he ends up having a metal (adamantium) bonded to his skeleton, giving him extraordinary strength and resilience.

As a metaphor, Wolverine is much more exciting than reinforced concrete, but embodies the same principle that adding something to our core can make us stronger, although I'm not advocating plating your bones with metal!

Often, an attribute of strength is a degree of flexibility. Iron is an inherently strong material, but cast iron is relatively brittle, lacking flexibility.
"...adding something to our core can make us stronger"
Steel is more flexible and less brittle, and is formed by removing impurities in pure iron and iron ores and adding alloying elements. I think that in our lives we can become less iron and more steel as we're refined through our life experience - particularly through tough times and heartache. We can become less brittle and more durable as a result, if we submit ourself to the process. As the psalmist said:

"For you, O God, tested us; you refined us like silver.
You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs.
You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and water,
but you brought us to a place of abundance" (Psalm 66:10-12, NIV)

I've always loved watching the Worlds' Strongest Man competitions on TV, ever since I was a beanpole twelve year old with body building ambitions far in excess of my frame! In a physical sense, we build muscle through repeated action - like a bodybuilder repeatedly lifting weights - or a sportsman going through their specific motions. As well as pushing yourself up to and beyond your limits, to grow muscle you need good nutrition and importantly rest - it's often in the rest times that the muscle is able to rebuild stronger.
"in our lives we can become less iron and more steel as we're refined through our life experience"
It's possible to overtrain, and many athletes find it hard to rest, always wanting to drive themselves faster, higher and stronger (citius, altius, fortius as the Olympic motto goes). For us to be strong and productive we also need to allow ourselves time to rest. I find this particularly at work. The more I'm able to switch off from work mode in an evening and particularly over a weekend, the better I'm able to give myself the next morning. In terms of endurance, pacing yourself is essential, whether running a marathon, writing a book or working for others. 

We need strong roots.
Trees are another example of flexibility for durability. For as much of the tree as we see above ground in the form of branches, much of its strength comes from the extensive root system beneath, providing anchor and stability to resist strong winds. The most resilient trees are able to bend but not break in the wind. Each year the tree puts on growth, adding another annual ring. 

Like the roots of a tree, strong foundations also provide stability and durability, something I also learnt during my degree. If you want to build up, you need to dig down. Interestingly, in places like -London, it is becoming more frequent to re-use existing piled foundations from previous structures for new buildings, for me a picture of the need to learn from others and build our platforms on the shoulders and in the debt of those that have gone before us. Along these lines, I love this quote from David Brinkley:

"A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him" 

So what makes us strong? And are there things you can shore up in your own life? Perhaps you just need to keep doing what you're doing, allowing strength to develop through repeated action and deliberate practice at a skill you're trying to master. Maybe you're still a little rough around the edges, too many corners - perhaps you're finding this at work, or in your relationships. Often it's hard for us to see our own rough edges, so a way to become stronger is to find people that you trust and ask them to gently point these out to you. I had a manager at work who did a 360 degree review with various other colleagues, asking them to point out his strengths but also his weaknesses or growth areas. This was a painful and humbling process, but he emerged out of the other side more aware of his corners and therefore able to do something about it, and he's a better leader for it. Perhaps you can do something similar. 
"The most resilient trees are able to bend but not break in the wind"
Passing through fire...
Sometimes strength comes when we go through the fire, when we experience loss, difficultly, illness and pain.

This isn't something to seek out, but a characteristic of our human condition is that we will encounter difficulty throughout our life.

Like the process of turning iron into steel, strength can come through these experiences, making us more able to encounter them in the future and also enabling us to help and identify with others going through similar things. 

It's often at our core where we need strength the most. A reflective exercise for you this week might be to consider your weakest areas and creatively think how and what reinforcement might look like.

I want to finish with a quote from the prophet Isaiah. As much as I've been talking about strength and getting stronger in this post, it's not always something we can do on our own, and I often take comfort from these words from God to his people:

"Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the Everlasting God,
 the creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary, 
and his understanding no-one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary 
and increases the power of the weak.
Even young men stumble and fall, 
but those who hope in the Lord 
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint." (Isa 40:28-31)


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