In the fitness world, weakness is usually considered, well, bad. They even post signs about it at gyms: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”
I saw a sign saying that along a running race route once. It didn’t resonate with me. Like any kind of external stimulus during a long race, I considered it as I ran even after the sign was long gone.
The idea of being exhumed of my own weaknesses proportional to whatever I endured wasn’t a motivator; I actually found it shallow and distasteful. I decided to focus on breathing and looking at the beautiful external surroundings instead of focusing on the sign.
Interestingly, this is where I consider my strength to come from. My ability to notice when something is holding me back and correct my course, even and especially psychologically, is a sign of strength and resilience. But this has a proportional relationship to weakness and vulnerability.
My strength doesn’t exist without those.
I accept and work with weakness, therefore I’m strong.
I couldn’t always easily be open about feeling or being weak. At this point in my ongoing outdoor pursuits and ability, I feel confident and secure enough to talk openly about where I fall short. I’ve come to understand that it’s really OK -- everyone struggles, even and especially those who excel. Maybe we’re all at different levels, fitness and performance-wise, but many experiences are still universally human.
When I think about weakness and shame, the first memory that comes up is early on in my hiking career. I was with a school group up in the mountains, and I was one of — if not the — least physically strong in the group.
Every single hill was a red-faced, wheezing struggle. I spent breaks, which didn’t happen frequently enough even with people pausing to wait for me, gasping and waiting for my heart to stop trying to force its way through my chest.
I spent those breaks deep in my own shame. Why was I unlike everyone else? What was so wrong with me? My sweat was disgusting, and so was my bright red face — I could feel it practically radiating heat. What was everyone thinking about me — and why, why, why did this hiking thing seem to come so easily to everyone but me?
Shame was an early motivator to get strong. After that hiking trip, I started going for furtive runs in the night in my suburban neighborhood. I went to the gym. I practiced on the Stairmaster with a backpack full of books, like I was going backpacking. I dieted.
After a lot of work, I became more physically competent. I wasn’t scampering up mountains like some of my peers who had grown up in the hills, but I was steadily making my way up and didn’t need to stop as often.
But that shame ran deep, and it colored my whole experience. I didn’t feel the joy of being outside yet. I just felt relief that my comparisons between myself and others were no longer as cutting. I spent time loathing my body for its shortcomings and trying to push myself beyond them. I enjoyed hikes most of all when they were over, because of the great sense of relief that I’d accomplished something.
This is no way to live.
There was no pivotal moment that moved me beyond experiencing weakness as something to be ashamed of and made it a part of my experience and strength. It was a long, slow grind of building confidence in my ability and accepting myself.
Over time, I started appreciating what my body enabled me to experience. I softened up — literally, I gained back some weight I’d lost and stopped paying such close attention to diet.
And I paused more while outside, not because I needed to but because I wanted to feel the whole experience. I breathed in deeply and noticed when my brain lit up with awe and joy, and I felt grateful for both of those.
Now, weakness is intrinsic to strength. It’s a sign of being human. It’s something to be worked with, not against. I don’t think there’s a state of being strong that can be achieved like a level in a video game. If anything, my strength is only as good as my awareness and accommodation of weakness.
And the interesting thing is I’m more physically fit than I’ve probably ever been in my entire life. No, I’m not trained up to run any crazy race. But generally I can perform a broad range of activities well enough that I can really enjoy them. I even feel confident enough to try new things and be OK with failing. Tell that to my younger self, who was so afraid of embarrassment she spent hours secretly running in the dark to build up “strength” in a way no one else would witness.
As winter sets in and darkness feels more acute, it’s a good time to make peace with weakness instead of trying to deny it. My experience has been that when weakness gets its nod, strength flourishes. Not in some outsized, cartoonish way, but in a way that lets life feel brighter and more true, in all of its blemishes and beauty.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.