One day a huge, rusty gate collapsed on a four year-old child. He was trapped under its heavy bulk. His mother ran to him. She was a small, gentle woman, and her specialty was homemade ravioli, not weight lifting. But at that moment her son was crying with pain and fear: perhaps his life was in danger. She looked about. She was alone. After a moment of dismay, she seized the enormous gate, and with all the force of desperation, and with sudden, amazing strength, lifted it. The child managed to scramble out from underneath and get free. Later, to move that dangerous gate away, it took four strong men.
That child would one day be my father; his mother, my grandmother. In this family legend, who knows how much is true or hyperbole? Yet stories of great strength manifesting in extreme circumstances are well known and have been documented. In emergency situations, our notions of what we can or cannot do are reset to zero, as powers otherwise dormant are unleashed. I believe this to be true not only for physical strength, but also for inner strength. It is an essential resource. We may lose touch with it, yet we can find it again. It is right there, accessible to us if we want it.
I see this often in the workshops I lead. I ask participants in a group to relive a time when they felt their own inner strength. All kinds of memories surface from the past: parents who, having been abandoned with children by their partner, found the energy and spirit to bring up a family; people who had a financial crisis, suffered failure or betrayal; who became unemployed at a late age; who had a serious illness; who discovered their son or daughter was alcoholic or addicted to gambling; who faced the plight of emigration, or the loss of a loved one. In short, people who, as we say in Tuscany, had felt the wolf’s bite—those times when a merciless destiny assails us and we feel bewildered and frightened and alone in an endless cold. And we believe we are not going to make it.
Yet it was precisely in such dire situations that these people brought out their best: their resilience and courage, their practi- cal intelligence, and above all their inner strength. They felt a flow of warm, powerful energy that allowed them to emerge from the crisis stronger and more alive. As the Latin saying tells us, Per aspera ad astra. Through hardship we reach the stars.
For others it was perhaps a situation less dramatic, but one that forced them to develop a previously unknown tenacity. For instance, sticking to a course of study under difficult conditions; carrying out a project no one else believed in; saving up to buy a house; standing their ground against a hostile person; defending themselves against injustice or bullying. Reliving these experi- ences, they often are surprised to realize that their strength has never left them. It is still there, albeit dormant and forgotten—a force for which they are proud and grateful. Just remembering it, they are moved.
To be strong—that is, competent, centered, resolute, able to face difficulties—is a good feeling. To be weak—distractible, fearful, apathetic—is not. This is obvious. Yet who teaches us to be strong? Very often I see the opposite. I see people who do not feel up to their task, who are overcome by anxiety, insecure, even torn inside. Perhaps they are endowed with wonderful creative talents, a great capacity for love, or superior intelligence. But they do not express them—for lack of inner strength. They are like a small boat at the mercy of waves, like a man moving slowly and tremulously and making big efforts just trudging along, a shadow of himself. They seem to have lost their way, and know not even where they want to go.
It can help to understand the strength we already have, and that which we can develop. Inner strength is a subtle and intelli- gent quality: we learn to read reality in other ways, use new strategies, forge our character, retrain forgotten abilities, change the way we relate, and tap our own resources. More important still, each of us is faced with a basic dilemma: Are the events of my life the result of forces over which I have no say, or can I in some way mold my existence? If I can see that my life is not governed by factors extraneous to me, but is, at least in part, decided in my inner world, I will find a surprising new strength. And I will realize that this strength originates in a faculty that is too often forgotten—a central function, often confused with thinking or impulse or emotion, but having its own distinct existence. This function is the will.
Let us see how this is so. The will chooses between right and wrong—thus is born responsibility. The will allows us to risk and to renew ourselves; to hold a thought through time, and realize a project. The will enables us to face difficulties and hardships without giving up straightaway. It gives us discipline. It makes our relationships with others truer and stronger. And it leads us toward freedom.
This is an extract from Piero's latest book 'Your Inner Will - Finding Personal Strength in Critical Times'
Piero is patron of the Psychosynthesis Trust, a philosopher, teacher and psychotherapist.