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Asher '15: Embracing strength

The stereotypical Brown student enjoys talking about hegemony almost as much as explaining that gender is a spectrum, not a binary. And when this stereotypical student talks about hegemony, it is not in positive terms. This student is wary of anyone, or anything, exerting hegemony. He or she knows that when one entity pushes every other entity around and exerts its will, in all circumstances, we all end up suffering. Likewise, when all voices are considered, we all will ultimately prosper as a result.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of strength recently, and I don’t think we give enough thought to it as a character trait. Now, it’s possible I haven’t been listening closely enough, but my assessment is that, on the one hand, we pay a lot of attention to physical strength, and devote significant financial resources to it — see the Jonathan Nelson ’77 Fitness Center. But we rarely think of our mental and emotional capacities in those terms. I bring up hegemony because I think it explains why we at Brown, with our focus on collaboration and equality, are hesitant to aspire to strength: We don’t want to be seen as having a desire to push other people around.

But exerting dominance over others is not what being strong is about or, at least, not what it should be about. Strength is an introverted trait, not an extroverted one. Ran Zilca, a “positive psychologist”— a term I have some trouble with, but that’s another story — defines strength in part as “the opposite of aggression.”

“Think about people you know and consider to be strong,” Zilca wrote in a 2010 piece for Psychology Today. “Strong individuals do not need to act aggressively because they feel that they have the power and skills to take over the details of a situation and bring it to a close. Aggression is a means of covering weakness.”

“Strength” is an old word — according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s been around for as long as written English has existed, and almost definitely before that. Unlike “intelligent” as a replacement for “smart,” there is no Latinate equivalent for it. It is a very old concept that we instinctively understand, and to which words like “acumen” or “endurance” or “acuity” do not do justice. If someone is “of indomitable spirit,” that’s a good thing, but it simply does not communicate the same fundamental character trait as saying someone is “a strong person.”

Though we all understand what strength is, and what it means, it is surprisingly difficult to explain, as many fundamental things are. One characteristic of strength, however, is that there’s no choice involved. When faced with a serious illness, or a tragedy, or any sort of struggle, people are often praised for “being strong.” Yet this can be frustrating for the objects of praise because, the way they see it, they had no choice — there was something that needed to be done, to be endured, and they endured it. They didn’t choose to be strong any more than they chose to be able to speak. Strength was something cultivated before the fact, and they could not have been “weak” even if they wanted to.

But if strength isn’t a choice, what good does it do to try to be stronger? I would say we all know how to become stronger, even if we aren’t used to thinking about self-improvement in those terms. We go to college and study in part to become more knowledgeable, but we all know that the person with the most knowledge is not necessarily the happiest, or most effectual. Knowledge is a means to an end, and at this point my feeling is that the end may as well be strength.

Strength is not the purview of a particular gender, race, age group or any other category. It is universally attainable and, insofar as a universal goal is possible, it should be everyone’s conscious aim to become stronger. I’ll acknowledge that I’m advocating for an abstract, most likely not very controversial, idea. But what we choose to consciously strive for and think about matters, especially as college students. We have been afforded four years to mold ourselves into what we wish to become for the rest of our lives — if we don’t know what it is we are aiming for in the most basic of terms, that process of self-creation has the potential to become aimless and muddled.

When I take Zilca’s advice and think of someone I consider to be strong, one person I think of is Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot. It’s easy to say she’s “awesome” or “tough,” but I think what we’re really saying is, she’s strong. She’s strong enough to be used as a political punching bag for the autocratic ruler of an intolerant country, to be thrown in jail with no cause, to be whipped in the streets — and to retaliate only by continuing to be herself. It sounds like a cliche, but maybe it’s a cliche for a reason — we must not only work to be strong, but hope to find a cause worth being strong for.

And finally, because I can’t resist a good Roman example, if all else fails, take a page out of Pliny the Elder’s playbook. When Vesuvius was erupting, and he and his friends were blockaded inside one of their homes, his more fortunate nephew reported, “He bathed and dined, carefree or at least appearing so — which is equally impressive.”


Adam Asher ’15 is concentrating in classics.


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