My apologies for writing such a corny title, but it’s really true. The things that represent the most struggle in our lives can also lead to our greatest strengths. Everyone has something about them that’s unique, a struggle that they have needed to work through to be who they are. It is this struggle and how we react to it that defines us. And the very fact that we came out on the other end of this struggle and are still standing means we have gained something in the process: wisdom, a certain amount of strength.
My Own Example
A struggle that has been a major part of my life is my being transgender. This has become a large part of my life for at least the past ten years or so, when the dysphoria had become so great that I knew I needed to transition. In the process of transition, I learned more than I ever expected to, and drew on strength I never knew I had. I drew on experiences as an educator to help others in the community, working as a facilitator for a peer-led support group, and sitting on the board of a non-profit organization charged with support, education, and advocacy for and by the transgender, gender-variant, and intersex community.
And recently I’ve started thinking and writing more about what it means — for me — to be trans, how that intersects with the power we all have inside us. As a trans activist and educator, I have striven for years to find ways to empower others in the transgender community.
I think my experiences as a trans person are a good example of how our struggle defines us but also makes us stronger. Coming out as trans forced me to hone my relationships with others. It’s a truism for transgender people who transition that we don’t always know who, but it’s a good chance we will lose someone(s) along the way: friends, family members, spouses. My own experiences bear these out. There are long-time friends from whom I haven’t heard a peep since I came out as trans. My ex-wife and I split up as a result, as well. And although my family members eventually came around, it was touch and go there for a while concerning some of them. I recognize, too, that I am extremely fortunate compared to those who lost a large number of loved ones when coming out.
My point is that I pay extra attention to personal relationships now. I know the people who “stuck” love me regardless of what happens. Otherwise, they would have run the other way, just like those I lost. Because I no longer carry the deep, dark secret that I am trans, because I am interacting honestly, as my authentic self, for the first time in my life, I am capable of more honest, meaningful elections. For years, I felt like people could only ever know a small part of me, the part that I felt OK showing to the world. Now I feel like those in my life see all of me, especially the most important parts of me that I was afraid to let see the light of day for decades.
And speaking of fear, my ability to care what others thought (or to let it dictate my actions, anyway) was another casualty of my transition. I’ve previously written about how important it is for LGBTQ+ folx to be fierce and about how important it is to not care what others think.
The Power of “I Don’t Give a F***”
When You Don’t Care What Others Think, You Suddenly Have the Power
Were I not LGBTQ, had I not come out, I probably would not have had to learn those skills. For cisgender, heterosexual people these skills are nice to have; for LGBTQ+ folx, they are essential.
Finally, being trans forces me to constantly focus on who I am and who I want to be. Because transition represented such an upheaval in my life, I am conscious of how I present myself to the world. More than most people, I’ve had to take a hard look at where I’m going versus where I want to go, and perpetually revisit my goals and steps to get there. In a sense, my transition has forced me to adopt a personal continuous improvement process for all the facets of my life. In other words, being trans means I live my life more purposely.
Maybe you aren’t LGBTQ+ and can’t relate to the example of my transition. How about this instead. As a child, I had learning problems, especially ADD (they didn’t call it that in the 1970’s, though). I am convinced that my having to struggle to learn how to learn led me to a career in education. If nothing else, I would never have made it to college and realized that I loved to learn if I hadn’t won my struggle to get there.
OK, one more. My father died when I was 7. As a result, although it was only diagnosed retroactively years later, I went through a period of what can only be described as depression. By age 9, I was probably the most depressed kid you would ever meet. To avoid a world I couldn’t tolerate, I submerged myself in my own imagination. I made up stories and had whole adventures in my head. I also learned how amazing the written word could be. To this day, I am such an avid reader that I constantly hunger for more books to read. I probably spend more on eBooks than some people spend on cable each month. I’m also a published writer. From a fairly early age, writing came easy to me because I read so much. Also, I doubt I would love the art of creating using words if I first hadn’t fallen in love with reading the written word.
No, I’m Not Saying “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger”
We’ve all heard that old cliche, attributed to Nietzsche. At first blush it seems like it makes sense; if I survive an experience, I learn from it and grow stronger. However, it assumes one survives at all. As a transgender woman, I have known many who didn’t. In the transgender community right now, large numbers of our most marginalized members — especially transgender women of color — are most vulnerable and are dying at an alarming rate. At least 19 transgender women of color have been murdered so far this year in the United States. That’s roughly one every two weeks. That doesn’t include the 26 trans people killed in the U.S. last year, or the hundreds killed worldwide every year. Still others have died in ICE detention or local jails as the result of abuse or neglect. And sadly, far too many take their own lives; marginalized groups are especially susceptible to depression, and society can often seem against us at every turn.
Nietzsche’s aphorism also forgets that what doesn’t kill us can also just leave us weak. When someone successfully fights off pneumonia, for example, their body is still susceptible to secondary opportunistic infections.
So, no, I’m not saying to embrace something horrible because it will only make you stronger. I am saying that the very things we struggle with in our lives dictate our strengths. For instance, what would you say is the most distinguishing characteristic of the actor James Earl Jones? That’s right, his voice. Without him, Darth Vader would sound very different and hundreds of thousands TV news watchers in the 1990s would not have heard that they were watching CNN. Did you know that James Earl Jones struggled with a speech impediment as a child? Overcoming his struggle defined his strengths to such an extent that he became known for his oratory. Not all examples are so stark, but I think you can get the point.
Getting Stronger is a Part of It, Though
Hardship and struggle do play their part, however. I had to overcome gender dysphoria, ADD, and depression just to be who I am today. Along the way, I dealt with the pain of school yard bullies, so-called “friends” who didn’t understand why I didn’t fit in with the rest of the group, and family members who “only wanted the best for me.” A big part of struggle is pain. There is no way around it. And it can make you tougher. It can make you stronger.
Mary "Pepper" O'Brien recently wrote about just that. In her piece, “The Best Wine Comes from a Grape that Struggles,” she explains that, just as grapes that are planted in harsh conditions make some of the best wines, our struggles also pay dividends.
The Best Wine Comes from a Grape that Struggles
No. It is definitely not easy. But it is worth it.
What About You?
So what do you struggle with? What are your challenges? How have they defined you? Have they given you corresponding strengths? I would love to hear your stories in the response section below.