Where the Strong Lose

Subtitled, “An imaginary conversation between Strength and the World,” or “Why I wince when people thank me for writing strong female characters.”

I attempt to write realistic characters, but I would never set out to write strong ones, because being strong sucks. Being strong means never getting the cake, and who wants that in life? What cake, you ask? (Reasonable question.) It comes from a scene in one of the earliest episodes of CSI, when a character made a sad observation that stuck with me. “I’m not the guy who gets a cake in the break room on his last day,” he said, “I’ll pack up and leave, and no one will even notice I’m gone.”

Some folks get cake and backslaps and farewell hugs but some aren’t missed at all, even if they’re perfectly well-liked and accepted, admired, respected, part of the team, and so on. Bear with the analogy here. The strong don’t get cake. Not on their last day, not on their birthday, not on their lowest days.

Cake is for nice people. Soft people. Positive, cuddly people who enjoy big celebrations and hugs and bright happy things.People who can prove they need cake because they look right, talk right, act deserving of it.

The strong say to the world, “Why shouldn’t we get a little love and cake too? Assertiveness and brashness only mean we are practiced at hiding weakness. Disdain for convention is a surrender to the painful knowledge that we can never achieve it. Effective defenses are an ingrained response to assault. We are soft beneath the armor.

Too bad, the world says. You appear self-contained and self-assured, and so you will be judged. You need nothing from others, and so you will get nothing. (Proud, some say. Stuck-up. Know-it-all. Argumentative, even. Uppity. Strident. Pushy. Negative. Critical. Bitter. Oh, yes. There’s a whole thesaurus of flaws that trail along behind strength like a sticky fringe.)

The strong say, “Those adjectives are the bricks of the walls we stand against. They expose how seldom we have the luxury of trusting anyone at our backs. We were denied until we were exhausted with the asking, until we learned to do without. That does not make us strong. It makes us lonely. We are as vulnerable and damaged behind our defenses as any human who ever lived.”

No, the world says. You don’t get to be vulnerable. The role of the strong is to brace up others. To hold, not to be held. The soft need care and nurturing and support. You do not qualify.

The strong say, “But everyone needs support. Why must some scrape for what others are given freely? Are we not all human? Do we not all bleed the same?”

No, the world says. The soft, the cuddly, the sweet–their cries for help are answered because they are who they are. For the strong to declare itself weak is a betrayal. Strong people who cry for help are selfish, lazy, attention-seekers, not soft. You’re strong and selfish. Strong and lazy. No one likes a whiner. Stop crying. Buck up. Put on the happy face. When you ask for help you taking away time and energy from those who really deserve it.

It’s a horrific paradox. Strong people can never be anything else because they never can be anything else. The sickest part is that “strong” in this sense is an external label. It sits right between the shoulder blades like a fucking target.

I was labeled strong before I hit puberty, but in truth I am about as strong as a bowl of mashed potatoes. Unfortunately I’ll never get rid of the damned label, because externals are all that matter. For me to get any help when I need it, I must lay out specifics explicitly and frequently, and insist on assistance. No one will ever just notice, and reach out. I know this from painful experience.

Being strong means no one helps without being asked–and asked, and asked, until the asking sucks all energy from me. Even then, only a few even are willing to offer support. Because why would I need it? I’m strong. I can take it. So many people say, “Be yourself!” but as long as I’m true to myself — strong, hard, negative and all the rest — I will be un-nurtured because I don’t deserve nurture.

Are you seeing the circular argument there? This is why I sometimes abandon the world for the cold solace my own company. Limping along by myself, injured and hurting, is less painful when I’m not surrounded by people who are helping each other…and not me.

Why does it happen? Maybe most people are conditional about acceptance even when they swear they aren’t. Maybe it’s easier to turn away than offer a hand when there’s no ready reward of soft, sweet gratitude. Yeah. Maybe.  I like cake, dammit. I’m starving for it, some days, and it pisses me off that cake is reserved for people who “behave like they need it.” And I’m not afraid to say so.

Delicious cakes. I want more.

3 responses to “Where the Strong Lose”

  1. Bryan Avatar

    I can't argue against your experience, because it's yours, but.. Noelle, my wife, is one of the strongest people I know. Sometimes I'm amazed at how much it takes to knock her down. What I've learned from seeing what she goes through is simple.Sometimes, you just take the fucking cake.If you're the one who has to be strong – for whatever reason, and for any value of 'strong', however it gets defined – if you don't have someone to support you when you need it, then you owe it to those you are being strong for to take care of yourself. To walk away and find solace on your own terms. To have some cake, and maybe a rum & coke.And to any who dispute your right to cake, say this:”A truly strong person does not need the approval of others any more than a lion needs the approval of sheep.” (Vernon Howard)

  2. K.M. Herkes Avatar

    Absolutely. You are absolutely right. I can and do get myself plenty of cake. All the time, I make sure I get cake. I am a self-serve cake master. (I do love a good food analogy) What occasionally gets my goat and leads to rants like this is that I don't want to ALWAYS HAVE TO take my own fucking cake. I want someone to BRING me a nice, big moist delicious slice slathered in diabetes-inducing rich frosting. Without. Me. Asking. And I believe with every fiber of my being that I deserve to be given some cake now and then as much as those who can't/won't/don't need to take it for themselves. That is what does not happen, and in my heart, I am a selfish toddler, not a lion.

  3. K.M. Herkes Avatar

    Also, if I had sticker-comments for the blog, you would get applause and extra props for the rum & coke embellishment. Because cake does go well with froufrou drinks.