Strong is a word I used to hate.
What does strong mean? What is strength? I feel like Pontius Pilate as I ask these kinds of questions. When I graduated from Union University a semester early, summa cum laude, I was called strong because I had achieved something. When I crawled out into the barren wasteland called the economy, I was called strong because even though I contemplated suicide, I kept trying to live. When I finally found a job, I was called strong because at least I was doing something, and when I started working two jobs, I was called strong because I got up before the sun rose and went to bed long after it had set. When I fell in love and decided to put off leaving Jackson because he was here, I was called strong because I gave up some of my dreams in order to start a new one. And when the person I loved decided not to love me anymore, I was called strong then most of all because people just didn’t know what else to say.
For several months I hated that word, hated the way it just reminded me of pain. It was all I could feel when I trudged from my car to the back door of my rented house each night. At some point my roommates stopped leaving the porch light on after dark to save money, and now the lonely walk to my door looked as dark as I felt. Sure, I was still getting up each morning, working all the time, paying my bills like an adult. I was strong, but only because I had to be. And I didn’t want to be strong anymore.
But I’ll tell you something about becoming strong: you stop hiding. I struggled with even writing this piece because I like for people to think I’m completely okay with everything in my life. That way, maybe they won’t hold me to a standard I can’t meet. I used to think that you tested your strength by adding another weight to the bench press bar, or maybe you completed an extra task on your to-do list that day, and, yeah, those things count. But there are other ways. You also test your strength when you learn that it’s fine to cry in front of strangers, when you ask for help, and when you learn to be honest. I think that’s something Jesus really understood during his crucifixion. At his weakest point, when he was most humiliated, he was saving the world. There’s a verse I’ve read countless times: “When I am weak, then I am strong.”
People usually don’t believe that I’ve lived in this area my entire life since I don’t have really have an accent, but it’s true. I grew up in Medon, Tennessee, but I attended kindergarten through twelfth grade at Trinity Christian Academy in Jackson, remained here for college, and now work here. I’m not going to tell you that I’ve ever consciously chosen to stay here. But I have chosen to stay alive. Through writing and connecting with the people of our city, I have chosen to champion what is good about where we are. It’s not hard to look around and see what is lovely—what is true—about where we are. For me, it’s the blooming trees and flowers planted everywhere I look. It’s the growing number of local musical talent, Jackson-born and bred. It’s the fact that God has blessed me with a loving family and friend group, and you know where most of them are? In Jackson.
That’s what I’ve learned so far; you have to choose Jackson as your own. If you’re coming from a place of hurt, it’s got to be a leap, something like Kierkegaard wrote about in Fear and Trembling. In the words of The National, you “learn to appreciate the void.” When you take ownership of what has happened to you and the person you’re becoming, you make the word strong mean something other than simply enduring the circumstances that you didn’t want. Strong is seeing your city, your life, through resurrected eyes.
tags Jackson TN, Tennessee, Stay731, #stay731, Olivia Skelton, Katie Howerton, strength, strong, Union University, college, suicide, Starbucks, love, pain, relationship, Medon TN, West Tennessee, hometown, Trinity Christian Academy, writing, community, friendship, friends, family, Kierkegaard, hurt, The National, Women's History Month