Heathcliff, Vertebrates, and the Definition of Strength

Heathcliff, that fantastically moody, and emotionally decrepit fellow of Wuthering Heights, gets the credit (or the blame) for the inspiration behind my blog post today. (While this is a bit of a digression from my blog's focus, it was fun to write, and hopefully will be helpful for authors who are thinking about how to make their characters strong.)
I've been thinking about the idea of strength since I happened by an online discussion a few months ago. The question was for girls; if you had to end up with Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre, or Heathcliff, which man would you choose?

Most of the answers were in favor of Heathcliff. He was exciting, he was strong, he was totally and obsessively in love with Catherine, and that was a good thing.

But Heathcliff also has a dark side. A selfish, vengeful, and puppy-killing side.

Despite these less than stellar qualities, women found his character appealing. Although I do not find Heathcliff's gloomy character appealing, I can see why he receives favorable attention. He has a dynamic and powerful personality, which is generally an attractive thing. Also, he is perceived as a troubled person, which draws out a girl's nurturing, “I love you, and I will help you change” side. He is strong enough to appeal to a desire for decision and leadership, but has vulnerability enough to be fascinating.

There is no denying Heathcliff is a strong character, but he is strong in the wrong way. I call it selfish strength.

Selfish strength has at its core a desire to benefit and gratify self. It is pushy, demanding, and manipulative. It does not hesitate to bully. A selfish strength is simultaneously very powerful and very weak. Its motivation is relentless and compelling; do not underestimate egotistic desires. But at the same time, the owner of selfish strength cannot control themselves in the way a truly strong person can. They cannot master the anger, judgments and greed that swell within the soul. They are enslaved by any desire, passion or impulse. Instead of them wielding a strength, their strong desires control them.

But there is another kind of strength, which is more than a match for selfish strength. It is called godly strength. It has a very different motivation and focus. Its source is not the desire for self gratification. Instead, we are told in a stunning paradox the source of godly strength is surrender to our Father in Heaven. His strength in made perfect in our weaknesses. (II Corinthians 12:9).

Because God's ways are not our ways, it seems as if His definition of strength is ours turned upside down. It's strong, tough and brave to give up control?

Evidently so. It takes courage to exchange our expectations of strength for a reliance on our Father in Heaven to master our unruly and fleshly responses. A passage in Proverbs doesn't seem very impressed with a conqueror of a city; apparently he who can rule is spirit is better than that man, and he who is slow to anger is better than the mighty. (Proverbs 16:32). John Milton, the seventeenth century poet had it right, he wisely said, “he who reigns within himself and rules passions, desires, and fears is more than a king.”

It is not hard at all to give into your caprices, in fact, it is easy and satisfying. But how much harder deny oneself the pleasure of a cutting remark, or an abrasive attitude, when it would be so pleasing to employ them. Saint Francis de Sales aptly pointed out that, “nothing is so strong as gentleness; nothing is so gentle as real strength.” Godly strength will often be manifest in gentleness; it takes a great deal of power to hold back a storm.

Because it is gentle, true strength is sometimes hard to perceive. The resolve is in a different place; instead of having a demanding and harsh exterior, strong people have a tender surface and a resolute core. G.K. Chesterton said it best: “brave men are all vertebrates; they have their softness on the surface and their toughness in the middle.”

To summarize the difference in strengths in a single thought: selfish strength seeks to control others, but godly strength seeks to control self.

Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts!  


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