Think of your deficits as water on a stone -- more powerful than you ever thought.
I often sit on the porch of our home watching the children climb the magnolia tree, and right in the middle of the step leading up to the porch is a crack. As I sit there on the sun-warmed stone, it is inconceivable that I would need to fix it — winter seems so far away. Water may be able to destroy a rock, but it takes so long it’s hardly noticeable.
Water is insubstantial compared to rock, and yet, in the end, water is the more powerful element. Over the ages, it has shaped the earth, cut deep gashes into it, worn down mountains. This liquid that seems so weak, that slips through your fingers, turns out to be the strongest of all.
Strength and weakness are often confused in our minds. When we feel weak, we try to hide it by projecting strength. When we are actually strong, we rarely feel strong; instead we know the hidden truth: that we are laced with hidden seams, fissures in the soul where water has penetrated and is slowly prying us apart.
The outward show is nothing more than a way of covering up emotional inadequacies, flaws, and secret sins. The admittedly weak, on the other hand, have a certain, beguiling strength. Humility has gone deep into their blood and marrow to soften the bedrock of personal pride. Like water dripping onto a rock, their weakness has revealed itself to be strong.
I deal in personal weakness on a daily basis. As a priest, each time I step up to the altar it’s with an abiding sense of my unworthiness to stand in the place of Christ and offer Mass. Over the years, I’ve come to an intimate knowledge of my strengths and weaknesses.
Often, people request assistance that I am unable to provide — sage advice, a solution to their marital problems, or the gift of spiritual and emotional healing. They want me to explain their suffering away, help them find God, or even just to make their children listen better. The cassock I wear visually transforms me into a spiritual father, and while I very much appreciate the power of the symbol and the trust that people place in the priesthood, the expectations of how many problems a priest can solve is drastically over-estimated. After all, try as I might, I’m simply a man, a combination of strength and weakness. While I’m more than happy to listen, to pray, to offer the help my ministerial priesthood provides, I am sometimes unable to give what is being asked of me.
My own laundry list of personal weaknesses is lengthy. When I talk about weakness I don’t simply mean bad habits and flaws. I also mean the simple fact that we cannot all be good at everything. Some priests are wonderful public speakers, others are wise and patient counselors. Some are good at managing budgets, others are talented in academics and teaching in schools. Perhaps, as a parent, you’re good at sports or helping with homework. Maybe you’re not. Maybe what you’re actually great at is totally different. Maybe you look at other people and are jealous of their strengths. My guess is that they’re looking right back at you, thinking the same.
There are all sorts of articles on the internet about turning weaknesses into strengths. I’m a big fan of self-improvement. I try it in my personal life all the time. That doesn’t mean we stop striving – there certainly are victories along the way — but it’s also important to make peace with the fact that we cannot do everything. There are going to be lots of areas in which you and I remain weak.
But remember, weakness is water. Weakness is strength.
Ursula LeGuin, in her novel Five Ways to Forgiveness, writes, “Look at water … It finds the weak places in the rock, the openings, the hollows, the absences. Following water we come where we belong.”
Weakness, like water, drills down to fundamental qualities like humility and gratitude. When we acknowledge our weakness, we make peace with who we are, we discover true self-knowledge. It also teaches us to rely on each other, our families and communities, so as to turn our diverse gifts into strengths that we share with each other.
It seems to me that when we’re all posturing and attempting to be invincibly strong and self-sufficient, we miss out on the virtues that are often considered weak – joy, innocence, honesty, hope, and love. These virtues, however, are precisely the ones that make life worth living when we honor them in ourselves and others. If we follow them, they will lead us to the kind of strength that endures.