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Tuesday, August 19, 2011:

Developing inner strength

by Rachel Stockton

In THE LIFE OF POETRY, Muriel Rukeyser asserts that "The life of Jesus; the life of Buddha; the life of Lincoln, or Gandhi, or Saint Francis of Assisi, give us the intensity that should be felt in a lifetime of concentration. . . .These lives, in their search and purpose, offer their form, offer their truths. They reach us as hope."

After her death, it was discovered that Mother Teresa "confessed" some of her spiritual doubts in her diaries and letters. Some have jumped on that revelation as being sort of a victory flag for non-belief. For me, however, it only makes her faith that much more remarkable. Despite her doubts, she had faith that she was doing what she was meant to be doing, that she was living the life she was intended to live. The fact that the "weakness" of doubt was transformed into a life of incredible strength and faith gives me the assurance that doubt and faith, strength and weakness, are not mutually exclusive.

In his book, LINCOLN'S MELANCHOLY, Joshua Wolf Shenk does an outstanding job of chronicling Abraham Lincoln's lifelong battle with depression. He tells us that Lincoln was driven by his mental demons to the verge of suicide, yet pulled himself back, certain that to "escape" his mental anguish would mean he would abdicate what he was destined to become. Interestingly, he had no idea what exactly he was meant to pursue, yet he had the faith and strength to realize that that was largely irrelevant, that when the time came for recognition, he would understand.

Weakness becomes strength out of humility. Lincoln never accused the north of being "right", and the south of being "wrong." Indeed, he stressed that one side might be right, but both could be wrong. He drew strength from the Book of Job, the biblical treatise on suffering. Interestingly, God never does answer Job's big question: "Why?" But, what he DOES let Job know is that all is not for naught, that there is a purpose, although it may remain hidden to us.

We like to think that we have things "figured out". The "unknowing" leads us into a kind of psychological limbo that is, quite frankly, uncomfortable. We would rather believe that we will know ( if not now, then certainly later) the purpose behind our struggle, behind our suffering. But true faith, by definition, is a belief in something not seen, in something that we cannot see clearly in the present. Faith simply cannot be faith without some inkling of doubt, some level of discomfort.

Sometimes it's faith that things, will, indeed, get better. At others, faith renders itself as a belief that there is a higher purpose for our suffering, our challenges. It also comes in the form of realization that we have a duty, an obligation, whether it's to our children, our spouse, our life's work to go on, putting one foot in front of the other.


My father, who is now 86 years old, was a veritable Jack LaLanne when he was younger. As an adolescent, he ordered Charles Atlas magazines, studied weight training, and faithfully lifted weights. He was also a runner, long before the Cooper Institute touted aerobic exercise as a virtual elixir of youth.

But life for my father changed on a dime. In 1961, when he was only 35 years old he fell out of a tree building a tree house for my older brother.
He became paralyzed from the waist down. As part of his therapy and recovery, Dad relied on the self discipline he'd acquired through his physical fitness routine. He continued to weight train (to keep his upper body strong), and he rode a bicycle 12 miles a day.

On one of his afternoon bike treks, a truck driver pulled along side of him and said, "Are you a boxer in training?" The irony was that my father was barely able to stay balanced, so precarious was his perch on the bike. . A boxer? No. A man of incredible strength and courage? Absolutely.

Similarly, my dear friend Debra has suffered for manic depressive illness her entire life. She "rates" her mood swings from 1-10; 1 being the pit of despair, 10, the recklessness of mania she has endured at the other extreme.

"I've finally made peace with my mental illness. It is what it is. Knowing what's going on certainly helps, but it doesn't prevent me from the suffering of it I can't logically tell myself, oh, you're approaching mania, get a grip before you lose control.' It doesn't work like that. But in my moments of clarity, I realize that I am who I am, and despite my impairments, I am able to do what I was destined to do, and to be what I was destined to be."


I have the lovely privilege of knowing a 95+ woman whose entire life was devoted to being an Army nurse. She became a friend of Helen Keller's during the forties. Regularly, Helen would visit the Army hospital Elsa worked in, visiting those who had been maimed during the war, encouraging them with her own strength.

Elsa told me that Ms. Keller always recognized her in the hallways of the facility because she "felt" the stride that made Elsa's walk her own. She was able to identify everyone she encountered that way. The void left by the three senses she lacked (that of sight, sound, speech) amplified, to very near "superhuman" proportion, the senses she had left. She chose to hone them by accepting what "was", and working around her reality.


The older I get, the more I realize how little I know. There is an irony when it comes to weakness and suffering: the more wisdom I gain from them, the more questions I seem to have. Carl Jung once said that if think we have all of the answers, we will stop asking. And, the moment we stop asking the right questions, we cease to grow. And if we cease to grow, our weaknesses will remain just that.

Learn more about this author, Rachel Stockton.