There is one man who has taught me more about strength than perhaps the rest of the world combined, although I didn't understand the lesson until more recently. I shall call this man DC.
I have known DC all my life. Before me, he knew my grandmother and my great-grandmother, and by extension, my parents and the rest of my family. He was from that generation, and I'm not really sure on the details of how they all met but he's been around my life forever. And over the years, as I got my own chance to know DC, I came to know certain things about him.
I came to know his smile. In fact, it wasn't often that he wasn't smiling. He has a sheer joy of life and the living experience, a deep passion for the work that he's done both professionally and personally. He is purely happy to have this opportunity of living, and I think with that happiness, there is also a deep thankfulness. He truly understands that all he has is a blessing and a gift, a divine chance to make a difference in this little world. And he has made a difference.
I came to know his graciousness and with it, his tenderness. He's the kind of man who always gives people the space they need not only to be themselves, but to discover themselves. He's the kind of guy who will take a bold step right into the middle of your mess and not worry about getting dirty. He speaks with kindness and gentleness, acknowledging whatever turmoil your life might be in....
Although I also came to know his discipline. He's not content to let you be okay with where you're at. He's always working you toward something better, even if that means a little tough love. I can't tell you how many times DC looked past whatever I was showing him and dared to speak truth into the situation. He routinely called out the deeper reality of who I am as a person, who I ought to be, and kept guiding me toward that place inside myself that was still pure. That place beyond all the mess.
I came to know his steadiness. Nothing could shake that guy. Whether it was me throwing everything my tumultuous heart could muster in his direction or something more mundane, nothing phased him. Things changed him, for sure, and I saw over the years his tenderness take a new form. A new way to respond in a changing world. But nothing shook that man. One time, we were out working side-by-side on a community project, just a small group of us, and DC emerged from whatever part of the site he was at and said, without alarm, I need to run inside for a minute and take care of something. I will be right back. As he was disappearing toward a nearby building, I saw the blood dripping off his hand. Turns out, he had hit himself pretty hard with the hammer and busted his thumb clean open. But he never uttered a word about the pain. He didn't even curse when it happened. (In fact, I don't think I've ever heard DC curse. At all.) He bandaged it up, walked back out, picked up his hammer, and went back to work.
So much about DC was, and is, contagious. He and I kept a joke running for nearly a decade. A single joke! He always smiled when he saw me, and I couldn't help but smile seeing him. We shared good moments and bad. Hard, hard moments. In some of my hardest days, he was there. Refusing to let go of me. I have mentioned his smile, his joy, his graciousness, his tenderness, his discipline, his passion, his steadiness...but the list could go on and on. What I want to get around to, however, is this:
DC taught me a powerful lesson on strength.
You see, DC was my elementary school principal, among many other things that he was and that he came to be as I grew older. One day in my early school years, he came into the gymnasium during P.E. class, just to say hello and make his presence felt among the kids. For fun, and for the amusement of those watching, he laid down on the floor and pushed himself up plank-style and completely off the floor until his whole body was supported, horizontally, by the strength of his two hands. He held it for a good full minute, at least, then let himself down to applause.
In my latter years, he did a similar feat on the playground. He came over to a set of the monkey bars and again pushed himself up until the horizontal weight of his body was supported by two strong hands. He smiled, looking around the playground at awed children, and challenged us to do the same. For the grand prize of something awesome, like an ice cream cone or a Happy Meal. You know, something that mattered. For weeks, you couldn't get a spot on the monkey bars at recess. Everyone was trying; everyone failed.
The image of this joyful, tender, gracious, honest, loving, passionate, gentle man demonstrating such strength has struck with me all these years. Because those are really the only two times he showed us how strong he was. He didn't perform like a circus trick; he wouldn't do it just because you asked him to do it. He was disciplined in showing his strength, and it always stuck with me that even as I went through some tremendously difficult years, I never saw that strength.
Yet as I've grown older, I realize I saw that strength every day and didn't know it. Strength is what allowed DC to be joyful. It's what let him be gracious and tender. It's what gave him the courage to stand in the messy places with people, to love people through hard times, to speak truth. His strength defined his discipline; it gave footing to his steadiness. No, he didn't often show his strength but it is his strength that allowed him to show the world what he wanted it to see of him.
Can we add here a measure of his wisdom?
See, that's the thing about strength - it's the silent partner. I have spent so many years trying to prove my strength. It's a gut reaction to weakness and powerlessness, which is why so many of us spend our time trying to grow, and to prove, our strength. At the same time, if I get to the end of my life and my tombstone reads, "She was strong" ... what a waste of a life. I mean, really. What a waste of a life. I'd much rather be joyful and gracious and tender and loving and honest and steady and....and a million other things that are all rooted in strength but are even more powerful.
I think about DC often, and with him, I think about so many other people in my life whose strength I never considered because I was too busy seeing the other things, the things they wanted me to see. Look behind all of those, and there is the strength. I am literally surrounded by strong, beautifully strong, people. It's awesome.
And there's a lesson of God and faith in all of this, too. The Bible repeatedly tells us, "The Lord is my strength." Indeed He is. It is because of God in my life that I can show the world what I want them to see of me: love, joy, grace, tenderness, love, truth, confidence...and a million other things all rooted in strength but even more powerful.