Strength In Weakness

A few years ago, I briefly joined the kids in studying Chen-style taijiquan — the original “tai chi,” an ancient Chinese grappling art rarely taught in the West. During a “push hands” class, I was partnered with a diminutive older woman. We stood toe-to-toe, our right hands extended and connected, back-of-wrist to back-of-wrist; I would shift my weight forward (toward her) and rotate my hand to push her hand toward her; when she could shift no further backward, she would redirect my push in a circular fashion, rotate her own wrist, and push back into me in the same fashion. We did this continuously, until our quads were burning and droplets of sweat ran down our forearms, and the longer we went on, the faster her redirect, until it felt (to me) barely controlled. I shrugged inwardly — she was a more experienced student than I — and tried to maintain a slow and steady pace.

Our instructor, Jose, approached and watched us a moment, then gently reminded her to move in a more deliberate and controlled manner. “I’m trying,” she replied, “but he’s pushing like hell!”

Jose shifted his knowing gaze to me and smiled. “I paired you with someone of a different size on purpose,” he explained. “One of the most difficult parts of taiji for men — especially large men — is learning to sense the other person and knowing their own strength, learning to be gentle. Anyone can be hard, but it’s often difficult for men to be soft.”

Jodi had told me for years that that I didn’t know my own strength and that I should be more careful when “handling” her or the kids — but this lesson drove it home. We resumed the exercise, and I tried to empty myself. I could barely feel that we were connected, which made it difficult to respond to my parter’s movements. I found I needed to be infinitely more attentive to my partner. Jose was right: It was hard to be soft.

A week or so later, I was partnered with a man closer to my own size and build, in a similar exercise, except this time the circular hand motions were more vertical in orientation, and the one whose hands were beneath the other’s was supposed to bear the weight of the other’s arms. This requires the other person to empty himself and let his weight (or at least, the weight of his arms) be carried — another act that does not come naturally to men. Both of us tested the other by periodically stopped our circles and watching the “empty” person continue to circle on their own, a sure sign that he was not truly “empty.” This time we were forced to be more attentive to ourselves.

It is easy to find the power in our strengths — to rely on our size or our natural aptitudes and bulldoze our way through the problems that confront us. This past Sunday, Fr. Mark of Our Lady of the Black Hills Catholic Church preached on the topic of meekness, in part using the definition “strength under control,” and indeed, the New Testament of the Bible is rife with the apparent paradox that we are strong in our weakness.

I’ve struggled with this concept myself and, in the past, have made my peace with it in the sense of Clint Eastwood’s line (above): “A man’s got to know his limiations.” But a few weeks back, our associate pastor at St. Michael Catholic Church, Fr. Meyers, helped my understanding in a profound new way. In a three-minute homily at a Saturday morning Mass, he said that each of us has a tendency toward one of the seven deadly sins — I believe he referred to this as our primary fault — which can also be the means of our salvation. (I’m certain I’m oversimplifying and not doing this topic justice.)

This resonated with me. I know that I struggled, early in my marriage, with lustfulness and learning to better love my bride, and I know that coming to terms with the Church’s teachings on married sexuality has transformed my marriage, my faith and family, my entire life. Despite a number of strengths as a husband, father, and man, I had a basic weakness and misunderstanding that kept me from being all I could be in all three of these areas. Not only did I come to understand my limitations, but my weakness was turned to strength.

St. Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 12, verses 7-12), says:

Therefore, that I might not become too elated, 3 a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, 6 “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

May we all be blessed with such a thorn, and find the strength in our weaknesses.

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