A Meditation on Inner Strength

Sometimes I like to think about what certain qualities would be like if taken to the utmost extreme. Perfected. Epitomised. This morning I was wondering about how when “weaker” people are in control they seem to be less graceful about it. They feel less secure and that feeling manifests itself in their behaviours and is felt by those who are lower than them on the ladder. Yet sometimes someone who is relatively weak or even sickly seems to take great responsibility in their stride. Emotionally they are able to handle it and remain feeling larger than it, in control. Think of Angela Merkel who is basically a little old woman or Gandhi who is 5’4” and led millions of people whilst wearing a robe and hunger striking. By comparison, sometimes I struggle to get to work without a coffee or to deal with the emotional burden of leading one person. Imagine doing this being famished and wearing a robe. Sounds like being a backpacker actually.

I believe the quality we’re alluding to here is loosely understood as inner strength. A quick google search indicates that inner strength is roughly synonymous with resilience to difficult circumstances. In other words, the ability to deal with difficulties without breaking down or giving up. The ability to look life in the eye and smile, when other people become depressed. Surprisingly it also seems to be an actual term in the dictionary. Its definition: integrity of character; resoluteness of will; mental resistance to doubt or discouragement (wiktionary). This last part suggests that it’s intrinsically linked to the social.

This definition seems close to what I’m talking about but isn’t quite there. I’ll draw an analogy to demonstrate what I mean. Imagine you spent your whole life bearing the most difficult and demanding job in the universe. Physical pain and danger, lack of necessities, social pressures of all kinds, uncertainty, responsibility for trillions, countless temptations, profound demands on every type of intelligence. All of these factors were off the charts. And then you suddenly found yourself with the most demanding job on Earth, such as being the leader of a great power. How would you react to this new role that would probably break most people?

I would argue that you would smile like a Budha at the emotional burden. You’d remain centred. You’d think optimally. You’d respond emotionally appropriately to the situation. The risks, responsibilities, the disapproval, imperfections of self. You would find your flow or even get bored. The neediness, frailty and fearfulness of others. You’d be aware of them, you’d look them in the eye but yet not feel overwhelmed by them. With God-like strength would they even be a blip on your awareness? Your sense of self-potential would just seem to dwarf those demands. True strength would be able to deal with those without being apathetic to others since they wouldn’t necessarily escape their humanity entirely. People would feel that. Or maybe it would corrupt them absolutely. In any case I think this sort of emotional strength is an eminently appropriate quality for a leader to have. It inspires confidence. You’re not likely to ever find one in this degree but it doesn’t hurt to imagine what the epitome would be as a thought experiment.

There is a premise here. It’s that going through great challenges builds greater inner strength. I love the story of Franklin Roosevelt. How he had Polio and that personal struggle seemed to build in him a strength and gracefulness. Now he is rated USA’s greatest president by an aggregate of ratings. I wonder if this inner strength can exist innately in a person, such as through genetics? Sounds like Achilles or Gilgamesh, to me.

One is reminded of Marcus Aurelius with all this talk of high office and nobility. The most powerful man in the world at the time. It’s well known that power inspires confidence and when one has power in this degree the anxieties rightfully fall away. It’s interesting what someone does when their anxieties fall away. Where does one turn for guidance when the normal motivators of pleasure and pain become distant? Marcus turned to philosophy. Stoic philosophy. You have to live somehow and decided to make his life a temple with the pillars of reason and stoic virtue. One can’t help but see the similarity between stoicism and the image of inner strength. The main difference is that the perfect inner strength I illustrated seems to be able to take challenge in its stride whereas stoicism struggles with it more. So does human nature struggle for perfection, though.

If one wishes to have inner strength but they don’t have it innately, what is required? Well, it seems that a full spectrum of challenging circumstances is both what builds it and what is required to make it demonstrated (although a sense of being larger than a situation can be felt without demonstration). One may be thrust into this or embark willingly on such a journey. Perhaps they could try to live their current life with principled perfection. Go without things you think you need. Bear risks and uncertainty. Be cut down and challenged by people. Be vulnerable. Aim higher and take on more responsibility. Be more in the spotlight. When leading or dating, be bold. We can see that above all one must have an attitude of courage. 

Why would one want to have inner strength at all, though? To attract women? Because it’s better than anxiety? To achieve some desired outcome? To be higher on the pecking order of humans? To be a better leader? It does have survival, reproductive and transcendent value. It seems to me that it’s something of a second order end in itself, though. Self-improvement is an imperative and inescapable part of quality personhood, but quality personhood demands more than focusing on oneself. I don’t recommend pursuing it wholly for more than a week since you don’t want to have an obsession with inner strength written on your face – that would be unwise and unsexy. I would recommend broader philosophies of life and growth-oriented action, however best they may be applied for you.

Ironically to the existence of this article, simply having a girlfriend or a child will cultivate this quality in you. Perhaps because evolutionarily, family needs more for you to be strong than to be happy, so they instinctively challenge you emotionally. Inner strength can be sexy or deathly real, appreciated or unappreciated. It’s correlated with maturity but also with uniqueness. It’s not ultimate good but it may facilitate a more glorious or robust existence.