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December 16, 2010

Is being strong always courageous?

A few days ago,  I wrote a Facebook update confessing my most private thoughts: "Five relatives in the hospital in the past five weeks. And what scares me most is that this is just the beginning."

Someone wrote back expressing sympathy and support. I thanked her.

And then I erased the status update.

The next day, I told my cousin everything that's been going on. (FYI: My dad had a heart attack last month and since then four other relatives have been in the hospital. Throw in a series of deadlines I was thrilled to work on, a cold I am less than thrilled to have, and some atypical and very annoying household chores that happened to fall in this period, and I've been hovering somewhere between stressville and insomnialand.) She answered, "You are so strong, I don't know how you do it. You just have to keep staying strong. That's all you can do."

Someone else also said, "You manage to stay calm during the most stressful moments. That's impressive."

I nodded, unsure how to answer.

Today I am wondering why.

Why is it impressive to remain calm when everything is falling apart? Why do we value and appreciate people who bottle up what's bothering them? Why do we want to appear competent and even-keeled in periods of great stress? What is so mature and respectable about staying in control and on top of things -- instead of temporarily ceding; yielding to the stress; readjusting; not answering the phone as often; scheduling a massage; pushing back a deadline; screaming into the great blue yonder?

I admit I think that way, too. I see people who have been to hell and back and without so much as a misplaced strand of hair and I want to applaud them. Learn from them. Be them.


Here's what I came up with:
1. We reward people instinctively for not dumping their burden onto us. Who wants to hear about someone else's ulcer or car accident or work problems? Unless the storyteller spices the tale with a bit of gossip or snark, why would anyone want to list to someone else's depressing woes? Sadness, like joy, is contagious. 
2. We reward people instinctively for not asking us to help them. When a friend tells you her car broke down and she has a job interview tomorrow, the nice thing to do is offer to give her a ride. When someone at work confesses he's drowning in deadlines, you know the follow up question is whether you can help proofread his 89-page strategic report. And we don't want always want to do this. So the people who handle their own messes (whether caused by  misfortune or incompetence) are the ones we seek out. Because being told about a problem is construed as an invitation to help solve it.
3. Society needs people to stay clam and competent when disaster strikes. If everyone fell apart, how would anything get done in the darkest hour? So we thank those strong people. We recognize them. And long before a mass-scale disaster strikes, we cultivate them. Those who withstand personal dramas will be more valuable when the big drama hits.
4. In many contexts, it's crucial to not let disruptions get to you. At work, for example, or in most team settings, considerate people don't let personal woes disrupt the group's progress. That would be unproductive. So we learn to smooth the seismograph of our emotions and carry on. 
5. Pride: Admitting you're in a hard place implies you can't handle the heat. We are trained to believe that the situation is never difficult, but that we are incompetent. Or not competent enough -- which is just as bad when you think about it.
6 (the other side of point #2). People don't want to burden others who are down. Confess you're tired? Then your old neighbor will never ask you for a ride again -- and you're the only one around who can easily drive him to the pharmacy. Tell friends you're overwhelmed with work? Then they won't invite you as much anymore so they don't distract you -- even though you'd love a break. Tell your boss your kid is sick? She won't bring you into the complex new project; why add to your to-do list when you'll probably be too frazzled to perform. So we learn to be quiet, be stoic, nondisruptive. We keep pitching in.
7. Lastly, and sadly, some people prey on those who are down. In some cases, the second we show vulnerability, that's the moment people kick us hardest. Depending on your goals and situation, revealing you're struggling can be the worst move ever. 
Whether I like it or not, I guess these are the rules I live by. I made this list, after all. I do wonder what the alternatives are. What's the middle ground between falling apart and being superman? What kind of sympathy, lenience or patience should people be reasonably be entitled to ask for when they're down?

Maybe some people are immune (or just inured) to stress, sadness or disruptions. But how many others merely think they are -- or pretend they are? At what cost do we plaster on smiles and append face-saving exclamation points at the end of every other sentence? How often does it make sense to sacrifice our needs for the comfort of the group (or other individuals) and how often are we needlessly and recklessly heroic?

As a final note, I'm tempted to say this problem especially affects professional women. The second you cancel a meeting because you have a fever or take a personal day, the change happens. It's silent and subtle, but from that moment you're written off. Soft. Unreliable. Hormonal. Focused on family. But I also believe the dangers are just as great for men. Mr. A would never dream of canceling or pushing back a meeting just because he's under the weather; he's worked with high fevers and during periods of great personal stress. He powers through it and when I tell him to take care of himself, he answers that deadlines are deadlines.

So women -- who occasionally do dare reveal the cracks in their shellac -- get tossed. Rotten eggs. And men -- who keep on trucking and keep up appearances at all costs -- get heart attacks before they're grandpas.

Women pay with income, respect, advancement potential. Men pay with health, pain, hospital bills.

Basically, we're all f*cked.

Do you see any solutions? What have you experienced? Do you share your misfortunes or keep up appearances?

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