The Fragility of Too Much Strength

Reading Carl Jung introduced me to a word that I love: enantiodroma – the tendency of things to change into their opposites. I find references to this tendency throughout literature, psychology, and spiritual writing. The Taoists in particular deeply explore this concept, and it arises even in Taoist-informed texts like The Art of War in which Sun Tzu uses oppositions as strategic approaches to conflict.

One such piece of advice is “When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.” The implication, as I understand it, is that an enemy driven too far to desperation, where defeat is certain and all hope of escape denied, has the potential to become a powerful nemesis. Too much weakness suddenly gains a strength and power that could cause severe damage to your forces.

A silhouetted surfer riding a wave.
A silhouetted surfer riding a wave. Photo by Tim Marshall

Too much strength, then, has the potential to become fragility. I think of this often when working with highly masculine clients. In our culture, what epitomizes masculinity is the hard muscle, the erect penis, the commanding presence, hardness and strength unyielding and unending. It is a lie, of course, an archetypal Masculinity which no one could wear indefinitely, and yet so many masculine and male people think they must.

Excessive exercise is harmful to muscular development. What helps us to become stronger is the time of rest after exercise, after tearing apart the muscles with effort—allowing them to rest and rebuild, reknit with greater strength. So too is it with all kinds of strength. We need places of rest, of vulnerability, places of comfort and ease. We cannot be in constant effort, strain, and growth.

Even more fragile is that form of power which insists upon itself and demands all recognize it, the kind of power that measures itself by how much people obey and yield to it. By this I speak of what Starhawk called power-over. It is power that cannot tolerate dissent, disagreement, or allow others to behave as they wish. It is the kind of power that would waste its energy attacking or incarcerating someone for an insult out of fear that if one person “gets away with it” then no one will respect it. It is the kind of power that would punish someone for failing to find him attractive rather than work to become a desirable person.

This power is brittle because it demands constant, unyielding obedience. It is inflexible. It cannot adapt and learn. Any crack in this illusion of control annihilates all of it. It must force its vision of reality upon the world and punish whatever does not cohere to the vision; and not learning the truth about the world and learning how to work with it.

There are attributes of masculinity worth cultivating within the wholeness of one’s Self: resilience; follow through; strength; setting aside pain to do what must be done; setting aside one’s interests to labor for the benefit of one’s family, clan, or community. But taken to excess, masculinity is fragile. It damages bodies and souls. It does not allow tears, intimacy, vulnerability, unguarded moments of connection. It does not allow recovery periods or being comforted. Unbalanced strength that becomes weakness.