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Live Strong

By Bridget Nolen

Lance Armstrong won his 6th Tour de France this year, transforming him from an American hero to an American icon, a survivor of cancer who beat the odds, along with a handful of other competitors. His journey and triumph, in every sense of those words, has provoked a campaign for cancer awareness that has become quite"trendy. Wearing yellow bracelets that resemble thick, sturdy rubber bands engraved - LIVE STRONG is both a way to show your support for people in another group as well pronounce a sort of membership in your own. To date the Lance Armstrong Foundation has sold more than 13 million bands. Regardless of whether it's a trend or not, the proceeds have gone to cancer research, so the true reason people have for wearing those bracelets is somewhat beyond the point. An article I read titled "Bands of Honor" explained that these bracelets along with others that have been popular "symbolize friendship, values, beliefs and connections, and are a subtle way to wear your heart on your sleeve, er, wrists." In asking those that have worn or are aware of what these bracelets represent, I have discovered that Lance Armstrong, who has already succeeded in winning so many races, against competitors, against time, against obstacles, has also succeeded in putting us all on a personal journey towards living strong.

I discussed the meaning of LIVE STRONG first with my girlfriends this summer as we drove to the beach, armed with bagels despite the low carb craze, emerging from a house of 15 girls that in no way paints the picture of health, recovering from another consecutive late night. It all causes us, for the most part, to be careless with just about every part of our bodies, including out hearts. I wondered out loud if we were being hypocritical by wearing these bracelets. Even as I ask this question aloud to my friends I silently marveled at the art of wearing so many different faces in one lifetime- that of a school teacher, a sister, a nurturer, a single (late) 20 something, a friend. I question whether these faces are somewhat evident at work, whether I am more transparent than I think, whether I let anyone of them define me, and whether while wearing any of these faces, I am setting an example of living strong. As I momentarily gaze out the window overwhelmed with these regressions and engrossed in the sounds of Bruce Springsteeen singing the sound track of a life that resembles mine, I am rightfully interrupted with my girlfriend's response. She says, simply, I guess it depends on how you define living strong. It has to be about what it means to you."

So, I've gotten to thinking what Live Strong means to me, at 26, when about the only thing I know for sure is that it meant something different before and will mean something new in the days ahead. I define my strength these days as being true to yourself. As simple as it sounds, it's not an easy task. I feel that I have put great effort forth to travel the miles it took to get here, often choosing the road less traveled, often choosing my own needs when I previously never knew what that meant, often not choosing at all and just letting it be. The road ahead seems endless, but unlike many others that I love in my life, the road ahead is not set in stone, but paved in all that I learned about love and strength and living. Everyday I doubt whether that's enough, whether the strength that's required is within me. I understand that an open road is full of fear as much as it is possibility. I know that living strong is the key.

I have struggled much of my life with feeling other peoples feelings as if they are my own. When meeting and knowing people, I have, for the most part, always overlooked appearances and have had a gift for seeing their heart. This means that often their needs have come before my own. I remember being young and my mom sitting me down everyday before school and reminding me to look for the child who was sitting alone in the cafeteria and imagine how that child must feel, then do something about it. As an adult, I, like my mother is in many ways, am generally low maintenance to a fault. As much as I may be realizing that my clothes don't fit and I don't have anything new to wear and I just don't appear "put together and it can all overwhelm me enough to send me straight to bed"it has never been a priority in my life in some sense. I don't get my nails done, or shop at expensive stores, or wear a lot of make-up, or even pay attention to any of these things on other people. It's both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it has given me a clear sense of what's important in life and what's not. Even when I was young, I was pretty on top of my priority list. It has made being an advocate for the children I teach an obligation instead of a choice. It has driven me to do all that I can as a teacher, knowing that the curriculum I teach, the methods I use, the tolerance and patience I demonstrate, all help to shape not only my children's minds but the people they become. A blessing because my mind is constantly working to make it all better and more efficient; to become better educated and clear- for myself, my friends, my children, my colleagues. It has allowed me to be empathetic with my friends and family when perhaps no one else would. They count on me to listen. It's such an undervalued trait, to be able to REALLY listen. It has forced me to forgive. When you lead with your heart, you understand that people screw up once in a while.

On the other hand, it's a curse to forgive to a fault, to stay when I should go, to allow my empathy to keep me up at night, and my work to act as escape from the rest of my life. Overall, I have to believe that being self-aware is living strong. Its being conscious of both my strengths and weaknesses that give me the power to enhance, improve and change them. An anonymous quote I came across - " A strong woman has faith that she is strong enough for the journey, but a woman of strength has faith that it is in the journey that she will become come strong."

I wondered about other people's self-awareness, especially the people I am close to; whether they realize that it is often their definition of living strong that defines who they are, dictates how they do their job, guides how they raise and teach children, how they are a brother, a sister, a partner, and a friend. I thought about how their ages and experiences, jobs and journeys, all contribute to what they believe strength really is. In many ways I have let their definition of strength shape my own. I thought carefully about who I asked this question to, and made sure that in some way each of them has taught me something about strength. I know that for some of the people I was asking them to think deeply in a way that they are not use to, to share with me more in written word more than they have done in casual conversation, to risk saying something that might brand them as a certain kind of person with certain kind of views. What they didn't know is that I already knew them and loved them and have spent quite a bit of time understanding them. So much so that while what they said was not predictable, it was a testament to my unconditional respect and love. I ended up being more surprised by the people that rose to the occasion, whether that is in one word or fifty, than the ones that didn't. But recognized that the people that did were the people that are also very self aware of themselves and of the people around them, they have taken the time in their life to know themselves and assess what's important to them. In all cases, these are the people that I directly quoted. Here are some of our thoughts.

Learning from Children

I asked my first graders to write their definition, aware of the fact that this might seriously affect their interpretations given that what they could write and what they can say are two very different things. But asking them to write forces them to think, as it does most people regardless of age. Although many people would not choose this as their medium for expression, we are less likely to say in writing what is on the "top of our head and more often to say what's at the bottom of our hearts. My simpletons said, "to live strong means to live"and be strong." When asked to expand upon their literal interpretations they give me some "kid" explanation that resembles "it is what it is." I am thankful for their inability to over-think. They balance out the rest of us. My thinker who already has the ability to make connections between just about everything she's ever learned says," I think that Live Strong means love"and that poem Miss Nolen reads us called We All Live Together." My scientist, knowing Lance Armstrong had a disease says, "I think live strong means that you fight the red germs and white germs." The autistic student who struggles to write because his head is constantly spinning with thoughts that are often too complex for his teacher, let alone his classmates, said, "I think Live Strong means do not give up." My quiet rule follower said, "I think Live Strong means that when you have a disease you still do things you like." I was hoping he didn't feel like he needed to have a disease to do what he really wanted. I knew I'd never be able to teach him that its okay, necessary actually, to break the rules sometimes. The typical six-year-old boy said, "I think live strong means to have big muscles." While my empathetic boy, who can't read or write said,' I think Live Strong means you don't let your goals down." My detail oriented child remarked, "I think live strong means if you want to live strong you shouldn't smoke." They are all thinkers. Some are philosophers, in which case they said nothing at all, because they couldn't come up with anything that they thought was brilliant enough.

The children I teach have taught me a great deal about living strong. They have a unique perspective because many of them have been untouched by the injustices life can offer and by the hardships we face as adults. Their joy is abundant and they are easy to please. On a smaller scale, I watch their strength emerge in the funniest places. They stop eating when they are full, they stop playing when they are tired, they stop needing when their basic needs are met, and they stop wanting when they are truly loved. At six years old, the boys and girls hug each other without embarrassment, help each other without judgement, and compliment each other without fear. They can express how they feel in their words and on their faces and through their actions. Sometimes you just really need to listen to figure it all out. They don't have ulterior motives, or make false assumptions, or try to compete. When they are told that their personal best is different than someone else's, they somehow understand that. If they are expected to do the best they can, they somehow do. When they are knocked down, they get right up again. They are miniature pictures of strength without ever really comprehending the magnitude of that. Its only adults and the outside world that eventually teach them to do otherwise, to think differently, to defend themselves against a place that is not as kind. I suppose the real strength is in opposing that when it happens. On the last day of school, my regret comes in realizing that I can't protect them or save them or guide them in the way I have been privileged to over the school year. At six years old, they are wearing those bracelets. May it remind them to preserve their innocence, hold sacred their enthusiasm, maintain their perseverance, and live strong.

I am lucky enough to teach with someone who I believe is one of my true soul mates in life, and we don't get many. She believes that live strong means tolerance, which is what we try to teach our children everyday. She also commented on what we can learn from children about strength when she said this, " By the time a child can talk and walk he has been molded into a very unique and special person. When that child gets to preschool or before, that child has been exposed to many other children and adults. If you ever see two small children playing you will see that even though they may be very different, neither of them would "see it". I have noticed how joyful a small child will look at another child of a similar age- even if they are strangers. When do we lose the ability to tolerate differences? When do we start to be so egocentric? When do we begin to feel insecure about our own differences? I believe it begins at home with the parents. Parents will make negative remarks or judgements about complete strangers, a friend, their child's teacher or even to their own child or spouse. What are the children learning? They are learning that there is only one way to look at things (their own)."

Living Each Day as if its Your Last

"Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable." -Helen Keller

Strength is defined as having great physical, moral, or intellectual power. And life, essentially, is what separates us from being dead. In other words, the dictionary defines living strong as having a moral, intellectual, and/or physical power that drives us in the time we are given to breath. However, fatal disease or not, we are all unaware of how long that time is. I have said that if I could look into the future and know that I would never get married and have children of my own, I would quit my job today, and move to a third world country to help children who truly need it the most. That must be what living strong is all about. The other side of that is that the minute you give up the hope that you won't get to fulfill what you are sure your purpose is, something inside you changes and breaks. I know I could never teach people to hope when all my hope is gone. I have said, if I knew I wouldn't live that long I would quit this conventional life and do as my brother has, travel the world, see for myself how other people live, only make time in your life for places and things you love. I can counter this by saying my brother has always been on an eternal quest for home, while I have been lucky enough to feel home everyday. I see home in the route I drive to school, in the smell of my hometown in the fall, in my mother's hugs, in the eyes of my friends. My brother has chosen to surf and sculpt and travel because its what makes him happy, he sees home in places I could never dream of. Fulfilling my own happiness, in many ways, has come from making other people happy. Its our differences that make us human, however difficult they are to accept. My dad always said that I wore my heart on my sleeve, but I always felt that is was my brother who had the strength to say it out loud. One night when he was very young he turned to my parents and I before he went to bed, and said, - I love you, paused for a moment, then turned back and said "always will." I worry about him everyday, being so far away, living dangerously, and committing to a lifestyle so young. But I never worry about him living strong.

I feel that my brother would think that living strong means living each day like it was your last, and many other people's responses had this common theme. They felt that wearing this bracelet "has been a reminder to keep going when the going gets tough." One of my best friends runs marathons, and I figured she would write about how living strong is about taking care of your body physically. She said that to live strong meant to her to "run hard, run strong, and just keep running." To her this is as much a metaphor in life as it is in health. Her mother suffered and recovered from cancer, she has had a personal connection to what this disease does to one's body and soul. She has viewed that struggle as an opportunity to learn that life can turn in an instant, and living strong means being aware that we are "fortunate to be healthy and happy." She believes living each day like this is your last means passing this awareness onto others in order to support cancer research, and to take care of yourself physically and emotionally in order to be the best that you can. She said "wearing this bracelet on your wrist is a reminder of keeping it on the forefront of your mind."- Knowing what really matters, loving who you are, doing what you can. She does these things everyday.

When I read what she wrote about running hard and strong and to "just keep running I was reminded of another friend who goes through life this way. I can refer to him as the "politician." Not only because he is political, but also because he has that magical ability to charm and mesmerize, influence and inspire. He said, "the value of inspiring others is what has given me the greatest sense of accomplishment." Much of what he wrote and who is he is reminds me of a quote I came across by another political figure, Thomas Paine, who said, "I love the man who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. "Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death." I know that he feels that his own motivation and inspiration to accomplish has come from both the people that believed in him and the people that didn't. He has made a career out of proving people wrong. He does this with me everyday. He agreed with the "the runner that the bracelets "truly helped us young adults to put human life in perspective"to me, the spiritual and inspirational gain is the greatest protection from the disease. My bracelet reminds me of how lucky I am in "life." It reminds me of who I am and reminds me to never, ever give up." He doesn't give up, and he doesn't do anything half way. We share a song we love that says "But there's one thing I know for sure girl. I don't give a damn, for the same old played out scenes. I don't give a damn, for just the in between. Honey, I want the heart, I want the soul, I want control right now. Talk about a dream, try to make it real, you wake up in the night, with a fear so real. Spend your life waiting for a moment that just don't come. Well, don't waste your time waiting." (Badlands- Bruce Springsteen)

Going after what you want in life instead of "waiting was also a common theme in responses. T.S. Eliot said, "If you haven't the strength to impose your own terms upon life, you must accept the terms it offers you." People who felt that living strong meant living each day like your last also believed that in the time they were allotted they were responsible for "seizing the day shall we say. Another "guy friend said, " To me, to live strong means to attack life. Not to wait around being idle and reacting to life, but to go after it and make it happen. To not let the cards you are dealt dictate how you play your hand, but rather to make those cards work for you. "There is a world of opportunity"you must go after it and seize it yourself." My dad's response went along the same lines. He said, " Be an active participant in life; not a bystander. Don't wait and hope for things to happen; make them happen. Seek out challenges; don't avoid them. Set goals and develop an action plan for how to achieve them. Don't shy away from tough decisions and always do the right thing. Never accept things as they are and never give up." I actually was never able to put my finger on where I learned this outlook on life until I got this response from my dad. Sometimes parents give you gifts in your childhood that are not unwrapped until your old enough to understand them for what they are. I have never once seen my father "waste his time waiting." He has modeled the importance of getting involved, of making decisions (he use to suggest I make a pro's and con's list with just about everything in order to make up my mind), and accepting challenges. My dad has taught me, along with the friends that I mentioned here, that the only choice you have when you work and love and risk, is to do your absolute best, and nothing less is acceptable.

I believe that its easy to assume that if this was your last day on earth you would save the world or jump out of an airplane or surf the biggest wave you could find. You think you would do what you have feared the most, or finally accomplish what you have wanted, or have reached all your goals. Or if this was my last day would I ditch the airplane and just be with the people I loved. Would I skip the wave and look at pictures and be proud of the life I have already lived, not the one I didn't get to? I know that the people I discussed here, although motivated to run that last mile, or make a lot of money, or accept every challenge, or make the most of what they were given, would want to know on their last day that they did the best they could. Ask yourself what you would truly do on your last day. How would you feel about the life you have lived without knowing how long it was going to be?

Staying true to what you believe in

"Everyone should carefully observe which way his heart draws him, and then choose that way with all his strength." - Hasidic Saying

A handful of people wrote about how living strong means fighting for what you believe in, staying strong in your convictions, and having the personal courage to do what you know is right. Have you ever tried to make a list of your convictions? Often times we are not even aware of what they are. But when I thought about the beliefs of the people that wrote this, even though they are all very different and often contradictory beliefs, I started to see that they truly do fight for them everyday. I remember being told that if you don't stand for something you'll fall for anything. Once again, the believing is half the battle; the doing comes more naturally than we assume.

People that spend time fighting for what they believe in are often perceived as "strong personalities." Needless to say, that defines many of the people that wrote what they did. I see that term as the highest compliment, although other people hear "hard to get along with "close minded "determined no matter what." In my experience it has been quite the opposite. I have been blessed with opportunity to work with and work for strong women who have instilled their strength in me. The people who have the strongest beliefs are most often the ones that are willing to hear, understand, empathize, and develop yours. Woodrow Wilson said, "The man who is swimming against the stream knows the strength of it." It takes strength to choose which issues you will swim against the stream for, but for all these people, it's the issues they value most.

My principal said strength is "taking the high road even when it feels lonely." I know that I have been paralyzed by public opinion so often. It has caused me to back down from doing something that I know is right. Since I am so aware of everyone else's thoughts and feelings, I can become obsessed with trying to cater to them, appease them or please them, that I often lose sight of the message I originally wanted heard, the battle I originally wanted fought. The second grade teacher that I spoke of earlier gave an example of how this is manifested in our classrooms. "Living Strong means to stand up for the "underdog even if it means you yourself may be bullied. I have seen a group of second grade friends do this to another child and one of those friends step forward and tell the rest how wrong it was and how sad she was to be a part of a group that treats others in such a negative way. Instead of the friends yelling at her, they felt stupid and shallow and apologized to the child. She was a terrific example of living strong. She saw something wrong and was not afraid to go against the popular view and stand up for what she believed. Do these children tease or bully others because they are insecure or because they think their way is the only way? Living Strong means to see things through someone else's eyes. " Both my principal and this teacher model this type of strength everyday. Somehow through laughing and loving strong, they have managed to be the anchor to which I have clung to when I am ready to suggest another change, or go down a lonely road. Knowing how important is to speak up when no one's listening, "advocating for those who have no voice, and following your heart when you head says something else, they have taught me to analyze other people needs, even empathize with their feelings, but then fight for what I believe in anyway. It's how those in leadership roles are successful; they understand that greatness lies not in being strong, but in the right use of that strength.

Finding a Balance

I know living strong is finding a balance, a balance between your mental, emotional, and physical strength. It's all interconnected. "Inward calm cannot be maintained unless physical strength is constantly and intelligently replenished." (Anonymous). I spend a lot of time wondering why the self-discipline that defines my professional life doesn't naturally carry over to my personal life. I regret the choices I have made to skip the gym and work late, skip food shopping and eat out, skip dealing and just forget, skip facing what I feel and just deny. I find that much of the physical part and even the emotional part come second to a sense of happiness, priority, clarity and sanity that I desperately try to maintain. Losing those things is not an option when I feel like it's all I have to give. Its funny though how you can convince yourself your happy and sane and clear when the state of denial you are in is so great, when the retreating you have done has allowed you to justify, when choosing just to move on has allowed you to forget. I wonder why I can't find the motivation to fix problems for myself when my whole life is dedicated to fixing everyone else's? It's a weakness we all struggle with everyday. Knowing exactly what you need to do to improve, knowing exactly the plan we have to follow to happiness, and then not choosing it. Human nature is a pain in the ass in that way, there is a huge disconnect between the knowing and the actual doing. I have always believed it's much easier to learn lessons than it is to live them.

A colleague (a working mother) I work with commented on this need for balance in your life in order to live strong. Teaching and living is a balancing act all on its own. The minute I think I don't know how to put myself first at my age I think of women with children. You have no idea what it's really like to live for someone else until this happens in your life. If Lance Armstrong's triumph with cancer reminds you to go on despite the obstacles in your own life, thinking of how mothers must put their children first should inspire you to put yourself first while you have the time. She said, " Living strong means living in balance. You have to know yourself and be true to your own needs and desires. Living strong, to me, means living a fulfilling life. When you are living strong, you are pleasing yourself AND you are taking the time to please others. When you find that pleasing others is truly pleasing to you, you know that you are living strong"it is about organization, discipline, and persistence. You need all three to keep your goals in sight as you navigate the often unpredictable and difficult path that life sets before you. If I had to give just one word to describe living strong, it would be balance." Several people that responded wrote that living strong means being true to yourself, and being true to yourself means choosing a balanced life.

Staying True to Who You Are

"Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you." -Mary Engelbright

It is hard to find words to explain how interesting and inspiring and touching it was to read these responses. I know that everyone wrote from the bottom of their hearts. Being brave enough to do that is living strong. We cannot wake up everyday and live it like it was our last, we cannot face each day in a fight for what we believe in, and we cannot be balanced, thankful and tolerant everyday. What we can do everyday is be true to ourselves and hope that in our continual journey, we will try our best to live strong.

I have watched some of these people through relationships and friendships in which they had to find the strength to decide whether to stay or leave. They have watched me. I have seen them battle with feelings of guilt or failure or fear when they realize they are not in love with someone. Leaving and moving on and letting go is living strong if you are choosing to be true to yourself. I have watched them overcome moments of desperation and denial, and embrace moments of peace and freedom, when they realize that they are; that this love is worth saving. I found a quote that said it well"Do you want me to tell you something really subversive? Love is everything it's cracked up to be. That's why people are so cynical about it. It really is worth fighting for, being brave for, and risking everything for. And the trouble is, if you don't risk everything, you risk even more."-- Erica Jong In either case, they have emerged with a sense of strength that was unmatched by any other battle they fought. One of my best friends said, " Living strong to me means having the confidence to be true to yourself, and being yourself no matter what. It takes real courage to say, "this is who I am."

I have watched these people fight whole heartily for causes they believe in, laugh and love in the face of heartache, and know when to put, as my principal put it, "first things first." I have learned that we often don't know that we are capable of living strong until we are faced with a situation that forces our strength to emerge. It's then that we recognize the significance of what we have, and whom we love, and the mechanisms we have to survive. Its then that we know that living strong is perseverance, its holding onto who we are in order to overcome what we've lost or what we just don't understand. All of the people that have contributed to teaching me strength thus far have understood this. My wish is to LIVE to tell them, " I love you" and be STRONG enough to turn back and say, "and I always, always will."

Copyright 2005 Bridget Nolen

About The Author

Bridget Nolen in a twenty seven year old school teacher who lives in Philadelphia, PA. Her articles reflect on living and learning in your twenties. To comment on her articles, please contact her at nolenavalon@yahoo.com


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