Misinterpreting a Man’s Strength is Our Weakness, Not His

The strength of a man
isn’t in the weight he can lift.
It’s in the burdens
he can carry…

During a job interview, a question frequently posed to the job-seeker is, “What are your weaknesses?” That question is not asked in order to reveal weaknesses per se, but rather as a way for the interviewer to assess the strengths of the applicant based on the revelations the answer offers. The right response is never, “I have none,”  since we all do.

For the past few months, I have read and heard that our President is weak and doesn’t stand up, and has a habit of caving. This claim, in fact, has been a topic of political conversation for some time. I have reflexively rejected this  judgement, but I hadn’t fully analyzed why until now.

I do ask myself  how ironic it is that the strongest black man on the world stage today would be described as a weak man by his critics. But rather than denouncing the name-callers simply out of hand, I’m compelled to examine the meaning of this pronouncement and its intent. Are those critics correct in their assessment? What is weakness and what is strength? And who has it, and who doesn’t? What’s the measurement to arrive at such an adjective, one that is either a mean-spirited  put-down or is the unfortunate truth? How do we judge?

In a society where George Bush was seen by many as forceful, strong and resolute for refusing to negotiate with his foes, and for treating his domestic opposition without respect or due conscience, I can understand why seeing the opposite behavior from the next President could be interpreted as mild, weak and caving. However, does that really make it true, or have we been conditioned to make such analysis without a full understanding of the seriousness of our indictment? What is true is that Mr. Bush and President Obama, although both have borne the title of President, are each as different from the other as night is to day.

George Bush grew up in privilege, while Barack Obama didn’t. George Bush was the product of a solid, long-lasting marital union; Barack Obama was not. One had a successful father to emulate; the  other, a father who was vaguely distant. One grew up deeply rooted, with a feeling that he belonged, while the other continually adapted to situations of constant change. The fortunate son had everything that money could buy, and the less fortunate had to make do with being as resourceful as he could be. One could hail a cab just like that, while the other might just be made to wait. One man woke up each morning fully aware that the world was his oyster; the other went to sleep knowing that the world would not be surprised if he failed at life. These are some of the reasons that make these two men different, but they still don’t  answer why one would be described as strong, while the other one would be called weak.

Strength in character comes from the ability to prioritize what is truly important for the greater good, even when facing opposition from within or from with out. A man who truly cares and tends to his family, while loving his wife madly, is a man who loves strongly. A man who, against all odds, succeeds in obtaining the best education that this country can offer shows strength in determination. A man who rises from nowhere to the highest position in the modern era demonstrates a strength that is undeniable. And yes, a  black man with a funny name who dares to win the Presidency of the United states must have both absolute courage and fearless audacity.

But strength is not a subjective feeling that we each get to define, not really. In actuality, what strength represents has been known for years. Here’s a list (these days political folks hate lists, and that’s really too damn bad). I’m including it here because we need to read it:

Strengths of Wisdom and Knowledge: Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge
1. Creativity [originality, ingenuity]: Thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things.
2. Curiosity [interest, novelty-seeking, openness to experience]: Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake; exploring and discovering.
3. Open-mindedness [judgment, critical thinking]: Thinking things through and examining them from all sides; weighing all evidence fairly.
4. Love of learning: Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge, whether on one’s own or formally.
5. Perspective [wisdom]: Being able to provide wise counsel to others; having ways of looking at the world that make sense to oneself and to other people.

Strengths of Courage: Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external and internal
6. Bravery [valor]: Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain; acting on convictions even if unpopular.
7. Persistence [perseverance, industriousness]: Finishing what one starts; persisting in a course of action in spite of obstacles.
8. Integrity [authenticity, honesty]: Presenting oneself in a genuine way; taking responsibility for one’s feeling and actions.
9. Vitality [zest, enthusiasm, vigor, energy]: Approaching life with excitement and energy; feeling alive and activated.

Strengths of Humanity: interpersonal strengths that involve tending and befriending others
10. Love: Valuing close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated.
11. Kindness [generosity, nurturance, care, compassion, altruistic love, "niceness"]: Doing favors and good deeds for others.
12. Social intelligence [emotional intelligence, personal intelligence]: Being aware of the motives and feelings of other people and oneself.

Strengths of Justice: civic strengths that underlie healthy community life
13. Citizenship [social responsibility, loyalty, teamwork]: Working well as a member of a group or team; being loyal to the group.
14. Fairness: Treating all people the same according to notions of fairness and justice; not letting personal feelings bias decisions about others.
15. Leadership: Encouraging a group of which one is a member to get things done and at the same maintain time good relations within the group.

Strengths of Temperance: strengths that protect against excess
16. Forgiveness and mercy: Forgiving those who have done wrong; accepting the shortcomings of others; giving people a second chance; not being vengeful.
17. Humility / Modesty: Letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves; not regarding oneself as more special than one is.
18. Prudence: Being careful about one’s choices; not taking undue risks; not saying or doing things that might later be regretted.
19. Self-regulation [self-control]: Regulating what one feels and does; being disciplined; controlling one’s appetites and emotions.

Strengths of Transcendence: strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning
20. Appreciation of beauty and excellence [awe, wonder, elevation]: Appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in various domains of life.
21. Gratitude: Being aware of and thankful of the good things that happen; taking time to express thanks.
22. Hope [optimism, future-mindedness, future orientation]: Expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it.
23. Humor [playfulness]: Liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people; seeing the light side.
24. Spirituality [religiousness, faith, purpose]: Having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose, the meaning of life, and the meaning of the universe.

When reading the qualities that enumerate personal strength, I note that  many are qualities easily seen in Barack Obama. As the President of the United States, the President’s team is the American people. In this country, he is the leader who, while using his various strengths, acts as the head of our representative democracy. He is to appeal to us, and to offer up his solution to our societal issues. He is not supposed to tower over us while dictating loudly what we shall do. He is not our father, or a tyrant, and if he demonstrated such a capacity, it would not be the strength we seek. He is to negotiate the best position for as many of us as he can under circumstances that we can only imagine but oftentimes fail to appreciate. That is his job.

“This ain’t fun. But you watch me, I’ll get it done.”Jackie Robinson

Look, Mr. Bush was never called weak, although he has been called many things. I personally perceive him as an ideologue and a bully, and although many might think that bullies are not weak people, that is not true.

Myth: Bullies are tough people
Truth: Bullies are weak, cowardly and inadequate people who cannot interact in a mature professional manner and have to resort to psychological violence (and, with child bullies, physical violence) to get their way. Only weak people need to bully.

The person who made the observation I quote below was a relatively ordinary guy not known as a deep thinker, and yet even he still got it.  Some will not be impressed with Alex Karras, as  he was only a  football player who later became an actor. But his words make sense, and that is why I end with them:

“It takes more courage to reveal insecurities than to hide them,
more strength to relate to people than to dominate them,
more ‘manhood’ to abide by thought-out principles rather than blind reflex.  Toughness is in the soul and spirit, not in muscles and an immature mind.”