Adversity and suffering are NOT the same thing.
One of my friends asked this question on social media: “in your mind, what is the difference between strength and toughness? What does each word make you think of?”
This is the kind of question I love to dig into, and I think it’s a great chance to highlight some important distinctions. I’ve written about empathy before, and I think it’s an extremely important topic, so here we go again.
There is a really troubling attitude in North America, which many people have latched onto because on its face it sounds admirable (until you actually dig into it). It’s the idea that no one should get anything they haven’t “earned”. It’s heavily rooted in capitalist ideals.
Capitalism and “Work Ethic”
First off, this idea hinges on and assumes that everyone is both equal and able, which I shouldn’t have to tell you — we aren’t. The idea also suggests that the only thing that separates any two people is their pure desire and force of will. That is very much what right-wing and conservative identifying people want to believe, but that’s also definitely not true.
I can hear some of you saying “well just because someone has a disability doesn’t meant they can’t still be (dum-dum-dummm!) successful!”
There is this silly thought that if we don’t basically expect and even force everyone to work themselves to the bone, that no one would work at all and nothing would get done and society would grind to a halt.
On it’s face, sure it seems to make sense that a person would and should be proud and enthusiastic to put in an honest day’s work.
It would easily warrant it’s own separate article just to touch on the impact this has on (visibly or invisibly) disabled people, but I’m going to tackle this more broadly.
Yes, if someone gets handed everything, they may not develop much of a “work ethic” (but even that’s a vague term — what is the threshold for work ethic?) and potentially also won’t be very grateful or appreciative, but we all know that no one actually gets handed everything, so I don’t know why so many people assume everyone is looking for handouts (see also: this).
But there are some things to consider here — first there are many documented cases of people either winning the lottery, or getting large enough legal settlements that they don’t have to work anymore. Put aside the people who just end up mismanaging their fortune and expending it all and needing an income source again, not many people who can afford to not work at all will actually choose to do so.
Humans are generally wired to need purpose, and working gives us that purpose, even if our job isn’t our “dream” job. If you’ve ever been in a position to wake up on a daily basis and not know what to do with yourself (distinct from actually not having anything to do), that’s not really a great feeling. When people are depressed, especially if they’re depressed and unemployed, they might just lay in bed all day, because they don’t feel a point to doing anything. It’s not so much apathy or laziness as it feels like their bed is a black hole sucking them in.
Sure, they’re technically *capable*, and presumably would have “work ethic” if there was a purpose to strive for (beyond just “pay bills, don’t end up homeless”).
For many people, if they suddenly come into a large amount of money, it simply allows them to shift from work they don’t enjoy to work they do enjoy, and they can be a lot more productive and beneficial to society as a result. But even for people who are currently working, there is a prevailing sentiment that we can (and should) always be working harder because it’s embarrassing to not have greater goals or ambitions.
When people struggle and ask for help, the default answer (unless we’re talking about family or friends) is “why do you need help? you must not be trying hard enough to earn it yourself,” which is basically just another way of saying “why are you bothering me with your problems? I’m not wearing a ‘how can I help you’ sign”.
People seem to assume that strangers just lazily ask for help before actually trying for themselves. We’re much more forgiving with friends and family. Why? Because we know them. We know their situation. We know what how or what they’ve already tried. Why can’t we afford that same courtesy to strangers, at least sometimes? Because it’s emotionally risky, and few people have learned to effectively deal with difficult emotions (which I might argue is the core of this whole problem).
The Grand Remedy: Empathy
You know what’s really great for that? Empathy. When someone shows you empathy, it helps you both grow. It heals wounds, builds trust, affords forgiveness, and releases shame.
It boils down to “I see you are struggling, how can I help?” acknowledging the struggle without judging it. That’s called “holding space” for someone, by the way.
In the absence of empathy, all we have is our toughness. Toughness is the bare minimum one needs to survive a difficult experience. I think if you rarely (or never) experience empathy, then toughness becomes normal for you, it’s all you have, because it’s very much on the base instinctual level. But toughness shuts down a lot of your emotional processing (like forgiveness), and is a barrier to empathy.
Obviously sometimes you need to be tough, but I would argue that more often you need to be strong. They are not the same thing.
When I think of toughness, I imagine a big burly man with a beard, arms folded, and a scowl on his face. Kinda like a bouncer, but more pissed off. His attitude is “I don’t expect or give help because I can’t count on it anyway”.
This toughness is “i’ll drag my sorry ass all the way through this completely alone if I have to, for better or worse”. The default worldview is “justify why I should help you because no one helped me”.
This makes me sad, because I know this person is emotionally suffering, and in their own head they have rationalized that no one cared about their struggle, so that implies it wasn’t worth caring about, so the way they feel is justified. And that’s just not true.
When I think of Strength on the other hand, I imagine a person, any person really, with a concerned or sympathetic look on their face, with their hand outstretched, and the attitude is “here, grab on, I’ll help you up. Your struggle matters, and I know it can better.” Because when humans band together it really is a beautiful thing.
Life is often difficult and challenging, but no one ever said we couldn’t make it a little bit less so. Yes, sometimes that means you have to go out of your way, but it’s worth it (if you do, guess what? You’ve become a leader!).
“Lighting a lamp for someone else also brigthens your path”
Strength knows you are struggling, and wants to help now, and worry about the why later, not make you explain or justify yourself first. That’s where the healing and forgiveness and release of shame happen.
If you’re reading this and thinking “I’m tough, I feel no shame!”, part of that emotional repression I talked about before means that you bury and ignore feelings, but they’re still there, no matter how much you want to say otherwise.
And it’s not that pulling someone up means they aren’t already trying their hardest, maybe they just don’t have enough strength on their own yet. And no, that doesn’t mean “too bad then they deserve to fail and suffer!”, don’t be a jerk. Maybe they just need help once to get the ball rolling for themselves. You help them, they grow, you grow, and they can do a little better next time.
This is not to say you have to be either tough *or* strong. You need to be BOTH. But Toughness without Strength is cold and merciless.
As you might have figured out, I’ve effectively equated strength with empathy and mercilessness with toughness. I’m certainly trying to help you see the strong link between them that I do. And as I said, toughness is all about the in-built defense mechanisms. Toughness has no vulnerability, strength goes.
It both amazes, and saddens me to think that if two people go through the same difficult experience, they can come out of it two completely different perspectives.
One person will take the stance of “I survived it, therefore it’s survivable, therefore shut up and suck it up” while the other comes out with “wow that was really difficult for me, it is probably difficult for others too, I wouldn’t want to have to go through that on my own again, so what can I do to help others not have to go through it alone, or at all?”
Both acknowledge the difficulty of it, but one thinks that “surviving” was the point, the other recognizes that such an obstacle might be unnecessary and can be removed. What if people don’t actually need to suffer or struggle in that way? What if the root cause of the struggle could be easily addressed/removed?
“The true mark of maturity is when someone hurts you, you try to understand their situation instead of hurting them back”
If your reply is “no screw that, people need adversity in life or they become too soft!”, you’re not helping anyone. You’re glorifying suffering. You’re imposing your shitty experience on everyone else and you’ve decided that’s justified. But why should you be the arbiter of what is or isn’t valid adversity?
Hardships are inevitable yes, but suffering. does. not. have. to. be.
This brings me to another point.
People who say “life isn’t fair, and the sooner you accept that, the better off you’ll be.” This is the same school of thought as toughness.
To me, “life isn’t fair” says “I’ve been let down and left hanging so many times I’ve just come to expect and accept that and I’d rather tell others to become more cynical than to take initiative to fix it”
It says “everyone inherently sucks so I’ll just be thankful when people don’t screw me over because that’s the best anyone can hope for. Super negative, super pessimistic. I can’t imagine you are very happy if you think that way.
The strength response to unfairness is, as I said, to look at what happened and figure out how it could be prevented next time. You just have to be willing to say “okay, I took a lump, but I’m willing to forgive, and instead of taking from someone else to replace my deficit, I’ll accept it so the next person doesn’t get screwed.”
Again, it’s emotional intelligence, and empathy. Further elaborated on in this great article by Kayla Chadwick: “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People”.
So we circle back around to the idea that if we help everyone, no one will learn to help themselves, but all you have to do is consider what kind of help they’re asking for.
If someone asks for help moving, you obviously understand that one person can’t reasonably move an entire apartment or house by themselves. Physical support is pretty easy, and you can wash yourself off at the end and be done. But when it comes to emotional or psychological support, that’s where it gets messy, and most people don’t want to get their hands (hearts?) dirty.
To me, the tough crowd have what I might metaphorically call “hardened hearts”, and don’t like to (or don’t know how to) engage with difficult feelings. The strong crowd has learned (at least partially) how to manage those feelings and rather than shut them down and stifle a part of their humanity, they seek to understand and regulate them to have happier, more harmonious lives.
Tough people advocate “if you shut off your feelings like I have, then you can’t be hurt,” but think about that. That’s really just saying “don’t be a complete human because some people are inevitably going to hurt you.”
Here’s the kicker, if you show those people empathy, you might help them heal, and they might not hurt the next person the same way. That’s why being tough is just a band aid, and not a solution.
As Machiavelli said: “The injury you do to a person must be such that we need not fear their vengeance”. In other words, the worse you hurt another person, the more likely they are going to want to get you back. Smaller or accidental harms can be shrugged off and forgiven.
Not to make this a specifically gendered issue, but given that “male culture” (and toxic masculinity specifically) is so heavily centered on being tough (even though they will often call it strength they’re actually talking about toughness), this is a problem that is pretty prevalent in society. Women have historically provided more of the emotional labour while men imprisoned each other in the jail of performative toughness.
You might say “that’s not my job, I’m not your therapist!” and again, I think that’s defensive thinking. You’re right, it’s not your job, and no one is going to force you to do it. But at the same time, don’t then turn around and tell others not to, or criticize and try to dismantle support systems that others have built to try and help people heal. If you don’t want to help, stay out of the way.
And don’t call those people weak, because they are not. Calling people weak for trying to help themselves makes you a bully. Support them without judging them, or just leave them alone.
Tough people are afraid to be vulnerable, because it literally goes against their self-definition, and sometimes their sense of pride. But healing requires someone to be vulnerable first, and toughness often prevents that. Toughness is individual.
Strength is a result of having gone through something tough, but growing and getting better as a person (not just growing a thicker skin). It’s trying to make the path easier for those coming up behind you (or beside you).
Strength allows you to forgive, rather than blame. Strength allows you to be vulnerable and take the high road, to be able to apologize first. Strength allows you to care for and help anyone, not just those you may feel deserve it. Like doctors do.
Strength builds communities. Strength is a growth mindset. Strength is multi-dimensional.
Toughness is one dimensional. Toughness is the leftover anger when you’ve been hurt and have not been able to heal. Because any injury that does not get healed properly becomes chronic pain which becomes suffering. And yes, you can be emotionally injured). Please, don’t try to justify why anyone else should have to feel like that. In the “Suffering Olympics”, everyone loses.
Suffering isn’t what makes people grow, it makes them scared, resentful, bitter, angry, and selfish, and they have to become tough just to survive. Unhealed emotional wounds lead to fear of being hurt again. Remember what Master Yoda said: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Empathy on the other hand does make people grow. It opens their heart, shows mercy and compassion, forgiveness, it makes people feel valued and not like every single second of their waking life has to be spent proving that they are not weak and that they do matter and deserve respect.
Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person” and sometimes they use “respect” to mean “treating someone like an authority.”
Sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority will say “if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you” and what they really mean is “if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person.”
Yes, life isn’t always going to be easy, and if we never faced any adversity we wouldn’t be able to handle it as well when we did. But adversity and suffering are NOT the same thing.
The point shouldn’t be about what’s the most someone can take, the goal should be how can we all suffer less? Hardening your heart isn’t the solution, it’s a band aid. Suffering is a symptom of a problem, so reducing or removing that root cause would eliminate the symptom altogether.
To conclude, here is another quote from someone online, shared with permission:
“I’ve been having a lot of thoughts on this subject lately. See, i’ve spotted a newish trend i’m calling ‘Empathy Shaming’. People are sharing lots of memes & comments about how pitiful people are when words hurt them, or if I change my phrasing to be less hurtful to any possible onlookers that I could be unaware of.
I really dislike this trend. It isn’t a weakness to be concerned with being careful to not step on people’s toes. It’s a strength. It’s one of our greatest innate powers, empathy. I want to celebrate it.
I sort of get why some folks don’t want us to make this bold step into the great unknown future. It’s about fear, I get it. But let them know, there’s nothing to fear. We shall overcome. When empathy becomes the norm rather than the exception, there’s no end to the doors that will open for us. I’m excited.”
Thanks to Erin Rodgers for the question.
This article was originally published elsewhere on July 10, 2015, and has been updated.