Real Strength
December 12, 2011 5:33 AM   Subscribe

Please give me examples of admirably "strong people" who don't fall into the macho, no-feelings, aggressive, angry, callous, dominating, violent archetype, together with what it was about them that made them "strong".

*Bonus points if they have ever displayed insecurity, love, sadness, heartbrokenness, compassion, empathy, vulenerability or self-doubt and you can give an example of this.
posted by lifethatihavenotlivedyet to Society & Culture (55 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Probably anyone who's been a "Good Works" person and held strong to their convictions, even in the face of hardship or opposition? Like, Joan of Arc or Mother Theresa...
posted by litnerd at 5:39 AM on December 12, 2011

My friend is a muckety-muck in the Army, the kind of muckety-muck that gets saluted because he's walking down a hall. His wife, also in the Army, just spent a year in Afghanistan carrying unbelievable responsibilities. In that year, my friend--very much a man's man--cared for their young daughters (including the diaper-to-potty transition, getting them to school/daycare, buying them clothing, reading to them every night, holding birthday parties and holiday celebrations, etc.), led a Boy Scout troop, led a *Girl Scout* troop, went to work (and worked longer hours during emergencies), kept the house together, and worried about his wife every second of their time apart. This man, who himself served in Iraq and saw some tough stuff, remained committed to his marriage, devoted to his children, constant in his ability to show up and fulfill his commitments...and when we sat down to chat, he was remarkably candid about how difficult it had been and how tired he was.

But he *showed up.* He did the job that was in front of him. He constantly did "self-checks" to make sure he was fully engaged in whatever he was doing at that moment. And he kept doing it, day after inglorious day, because what needed doing took precedence over any feelings of self-doubt. That's strength.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:46 AM on December 12, 2011 [35 favorites]

Aung San Suu Kyi
posted by flabdablet at 5:56 AM on December 12, 2011

Steve Jobs.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:59 AM on December 12, 2011

Paul Newman.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:04 AM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

For a fictional example: Leslie Knope.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:05 AM on December 12, 2011 [6 favorites]

Steve Jobs.

I'm guessing you didn't read his biography.

Here's a movie example.
posted by empath at 6:05 AM on December 12, 2011 [6 favorites]

Former astronaut/fighter pilot Mark Kelly.
posted by get off of my cloud at 6:06 AM on December 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Abe Lincoln
posted by Jon_Evil at 6:12 AM on December 12, 2011

Fred Rogers
posted by samsara at 6:13 AM on December 12, 2011 [20 favorites]

From literature, I've always taken inspiration from Francie's mother in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Katie Rommely (all the Rommely women, really) are described as having a 'thin layer of invisible steel' that keeps them strong and keeps them going on through some pretty awful events. Katie herself isn't the warmest of characters, but she's very much a whole, loving woman.
posted by kalimac at 6:14 AM on December 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Quiet strength: Buck, the horseman who experienced child abuse until he and his brother were taken in by a wonderful couple. I found the documentary to be well done. It touches slightly on his growth as trainer who made mistakes and learned. He was almost too shy to talk to people but braved through to the point where he holds clinics throughout the US.

Today he works with horses and people to build communication and outcomes successful for all. He avoids punative measures and focuses on building towards desired response in the most amazingly compassionate and humble manner.
posted by mightshould at 6:18 AM on December 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman - both anarchists who were arrested, imprisoned and ultimately deported for their political activism. You might enjoy Living My Life, Goldman's very frank and interesting memoir. Berkman did a tremendous amount of social services-ish (as well as political) organizing while in jail. Goldman all her life spoke up for people it was not acceptable to speak up for - gays and lesbians, sex workers, factory girls. Both experienced quite a lot of heartbreak, loss and sadness, unfortunately.

Silvia Rivera, a trans woman activist who did incredible work organizing homeless youth and for whom the Silvia Rivera Law Project is named.

If you want a more contemporary example - when I think of strength, I think of Audre Lorde, factory worker, poet, organizer, queer woman of color. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name is her 1982 memoir.

For some reason my mind is going blank right now but I am sure other folks (who are somewhat famous - I know some very strong people in my life) and who have written accessible memoirs will pop into my mind as soon as I post.
posted by Frowner at 6:19 AM on December 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm dying to know what this is for -- preteens? I hope it's preteens? Because I don't really know anyone who's strong who engages in aggressive, angry, callous, violent, dominating behavior. That's not strength, that's insecurity and self-protecting. I hate to think of adults thinking strength lies in assholery.

Kelandry of Mindelan, from fiction

I can think of lots of real-life examples of just regular people but I guess they wouldn't mean much. Right now I'm working with a man who actually has built an entire mentoring program for high-risk inner-city youth that's all about how strength is in the ability to control one's emotions, because that's hella harder than just lashing out at somebody and getting violent. They also talk a lot about seeking help when needed (vulnerability), helping others (empathy & compassion), recognizing emotions and coping with them, etc.

Also some chivalric stories, the underlying message of many chivalric stories is that strength is in honor, refusing violence in some situations (women, the unarmed), there lots of feelings, etc. But of course they also do hit each other with swords when necessary.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:38 AM on December 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

- Lots of prisoners and political prisoners - Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi and hostages like Brian Keenan
- Passive resistors - The guy in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square, buddhist monks setting themselves on fire
- People who have had horrendous misfortune - Simon Weston, Matthew Hampson
posted by MuffinMan at 6:39 AM on December 12, 2011

Tangentially related: my previous question about people who had to endure immense hardships, which obviously requires a lot of strength.
posted by desjardins at 6:49 AM on December 12, 2011

A lot of Sidney Poitier's characters. Many of them know/do what is 'right' and damn the consequences.
posted by RollingGreens at 6:52 AM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh hey, Dorothy Allison. Admittedly, almost all her writing is Not Safe For Work or for truly young folks - she writes about sex a LOT and very frankly. But reading her short stories when I was in my teens was a really big deal (my mother found them and took them away!) There's a lot of memoir-y stuff in Skin: Talking About Sex, Class and Literature.

I'm trying to think of more strong men, because I think that because of social pressure it's a lot harder for men - especially straight men - to be strong without getting all macho and dominating. I would also like to think of memoirs by men who were strong without doing, like, manly-man strong stuff - there's this well-developed stereotype of the strong-but-sensitive military guy or cop that, I think, not only is used to excuse a lot of police and military brutality but also covers up other ways for men to be strong. (Which isn't to say that folks like the military guy described above aren't good men - it's what are the dominant narratives of masculinity more than anything.)

I know a really strong straight guy - the funny thing is, the main way I've seen him be strong is how he's gone from being kind of a sexist asshole to being a good guy who can respect women. He (like a lot of my friends) has been through some pretty heavy-duty political stuff (one of the various "you organized a demonstration so we're going to bust you for TERRORISM, you'll fight a years-long legal battle and eventually the charges will be dropped because they were politically motivated bullshit, but you'll still be out years of your life, lots of money and lots of stress" things). So yeah, he's pretty strong for that - but I know far too many people who've been through something similar. He's a strong guy because he was able to either quit drinking or manage his drinking (not sure which - don't want to pry), he has changed himself so that he is a reliable person and he has turned from being sort of a loose cannon of activist anger into a responsible, focused person who is still radical.

John Trudell, Native actvist, song-writer and poet, is a strong person. I especially admire his album AKA Graffiti Man. He was involved in the American Indian Movement in the seventies. In 1979 a still-unexplained fire broke out at his house, killing his three kids, his wife and his wife's mother. (It seems likely that the fire was set - by rogue law enforcement? by white supremacists? By Native tribal authorities who were working against AIM?) I like how he's not sexist, too.
posted by Frowner at 7:05 AM on December 12, 2011

Martin Luther King, Jr.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:08 AM on December 12, 2011

Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Patton was a WWII general more determined to fit the "stereotype" of angry machismo, but it was Eisenhower who was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, and he was the one who got elected president, and he was the one who called in the troops to enforce Brown v. Board of Education. I wish I was more knowledgeable of Eisenhower's temperament, but this biography hints at it and how he departed from the stereotype you're discussing:
Eisenhower had the knack of saying the right thing to gain others' cooperation. His strong personality and overwhelming good nature inspired trust. Classmates regarded him as a natural leader who looked for ways to smooth over disputes and organize a group's efforts toward a common goal.
Note that I'm not trying to hold him up as a "great leader"-- he had his screwups and was hemmed in by circumstances that he didn't make much of an effort to push back against (he gave us Richard Nixon and basically let Joe McCarthy spiral out of control), but as far as calm, collected leaders go, he's a great example.
posted by deanc at 7:10 AM on December 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Irena Sendler, who smuggled thousands of children out of the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust, was arrested and tortured, and lived most of the rest of her life as an ordinary, unknown citizen in Poland.
posted by cairdeas at 7:19 AM on December 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'd add Terry Tempest Williams to the list. Her book Refuge interweaves a lot of personal stories of identify with the story of her mother's cancer and environmental themes. I've mostly read her earlier work, but there's an inspiring mix of vulnerability, strength and grace in much of her work (and in person, actually) that might appeal to you.
posted by BlooPen at 7:19 AM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Somaly Mam for her work fighting human trafficking. She herself was a trafficking victim and she continues to do this work in the face of all-too-real threats to the safety of herself and her family (traffickers had kidnapped and gang-raped her 14 year old daughter to send her a message).
posted by kitkatcathy at 7:28 AM on December 12, 2011

Almost any third world mother who has raised children in adverse uncertain circumstances to become professionals and employed householders in their own right.

Just taking all the factors against her (broadly generalizing) patriarchy, lack of women's rights / organizations, socio cultural and economic factors, supporting organizations et al these, to me, are some strong women.

An example would be Elfi, a master's degree holder from an island in The Phillipines, who works as a domestic helper in Singapore earning around $300 a month from which she supports 3 children (having thrown her husband out when she found out he was drinking and gambling away most of her remittances home) - her eldest daughter has just gotten admission to university. She sees her kids for one month or so every two years according to the employment contract. She is only one of millions. Her mother did the same in Hong Kong for 15 years after her husband passed away when Elfi was 13 and her brother 14, the eldest two who left school in order to look after the younger 4 and work to keep the family going in the village.
posted by infini at 7:36 AM on December 12, 2011 [6 favorites]

On that note, Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Lithuania who hand-wrote thousands of exit visas on his own initiative and against his orders so that Jewish refugees from Poland could travel to/through Japan to escape the Nazis. He was literally throwing signed documents out the train window when he finally had to leave. He lost his post as a result and lived a rather difficult and ordinary life after the war.

Scott Crow and the other people who build Common Ground Collective in New Orleans. Black Flags and Windmills is his book about this. It's a little-known fact that anarchists were some of the first people into New Orleans after Katrina - anarchists (both "I am an anarchist!" types and "I am not into hierarchy but I don't call it anything" types) built an incredibly effective medical services and rebuilding services project, saving buildings that no one else would touch, distributing food and medicine when others could not and fighting back against the insane white supremacists who were targeting people of color right after Katrina. They were as effective or more effective than the Feds, FEMA and the Red Cross. It's an incredible true story and people simply don't know about it because of the incredibly fucked-up media stuff around Katrina.

I heard Scott Crow talk at our community center a month or so ago. He seems like a regular, flawed person who did some incredibly brave stuff that really, literally saved people's lives. He went into New Orleans kind of crazily to try to find an older radical Black activist friend of his who could not swim and who was trapped, and then stayed to organize. I mean, he just seems like a movement guy - a lot charismatic, a little bit clueless about gender stuff sometimes, really focused, oddly youthful for his age, a little too much into activism as Being A Romantic Hero....just like a lot of people, only he went into New Orleans and saved people's lives. He has also been investigated by the FBI, both for environmental activism before Katrina and for his work on the Common Ground Collective.

It's such an extraordinary story - I am a big ol' anarchist and I didn't know much of it. And watching him tear up when he described going into the city right after the storm and seeing the bodies, and a black man who had been shot dead (probably by white supremacists) and left dead on the street for days...Scott Crow is a strong person.
posted by Frowner at 7:37 AM on December 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Also from fiction: Atticus Finch.
posted by penguinicity at 7:50 AM on December 12, 2011 [12 favorites]

Oh hey, Scott Crow's friend is Robert Hillary King, one of the Angola Three, a guy who started out as a petty criminal, was falsely jailed after his co-defendant was tortured by police into incriminating him falsely, got radicalized in jail where he was systematically targeted by guards and the prison administration for his organizing and ties to the Black Panther party...finally got out in 2001 after years in solitary....and makes pralines to support his radical activism. He worked with Scott Crow on the Common Ground Collective. I didn't mean to NOT credit an activist of color while crediting a white dude - it took me a while to remember enough details from Scott Crow's talk to pull all this together.

Robert Hillary King seems pretty darn strong, too.
posted by Frowner at 7:54 AM on December 12, 2011

Not quite sure how this fits with what you're looking for, but as far as fictional representations of the qualities you describe, I'd definitely add to the list '70s soul singer Barry White, or at least the persona/character he created on most all of his records: big-time bad ass/man's man who so obviously, achingly adored women and was never afraid to let on how vulnerable that made him. Such a far cry from the pathetic posturing around gender relations on so much rap music these days by all those so-called "gangstas."
posted by 5Q7 at 7:56 AM on December 12, 2011

The Berrigan brothers.
posted by clavicle at 8:14 AM on December 12, 2011

Athos, my favorite musketeer! Cries like a baby over heartbreak but always does the right thing and swordfights like a badass (only when provoked).
posted by prefpara at 8:17 AM on December 12, 2011

Athos, my favorite musketeer!

Dumas pere is loaded with characters who weep, wail, and moan, then pick themselves up and go forth bravely into the face of danger. Edmund Dantes swings from despair in prison, to misguided stoicism as he's executing his revenge plots, to vulnerability as he's confronted on the consequences of his behavior by Mercedes, Maximilian Morrel, and Haydee.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:39 AM on December 12, 2011

Frank Serpico, Joe Trimboli and Adrian Schoolcraft who remained strong and honorable in the face of enormous pressure not to be. Also, the Little Rock Nine and their families who endured horrific abuse with dignity. They were daily tempted to quit, but managed to stay strong and keep going to class. Among journalists, Jyotirmoy Dey who had the courage to take on the underworld, and Syed Saleem Shahzad who continued to cover corruption despite death threats. Of course, Sarah, who endured an invasion, personal upheaval, jail time and disgrace and still kept going. She famously broke down on the radio.
posted by jihaan at 8:47 AM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Actually some admirable Bosnian youth mounted a bronze statue of Bruce Lee in honor of exactly the principles you're talking about.

Of course, the thing was ravaged by idiots a week later...
posted by vecchio at 8:56 AM on December 12, 2011

Gregory Peck's character in "The Big Country."

Gregory Peck's characters in most movies, actually.
posted by hermitosis at 8:56 AM on December 12, 2011

Gandhi is a good example of this. The Wikipedia page on Gandhi talks a lot about his principles and beliefs, and is pretty full of examples of admirable qualities of non-violent strength. His whole philosophy dealt a lot with the importance of self control and discipline as a personal and political ideal, and accordingly he was really demanding of himself and depressed when he couldn't live up to his own principles.

Generally I think self-control, a strong sense of duty, and dignity are common qualities of a lot of the admirable people who don't have the sort of macho characteristics you're talking about.
posted by _cave at 9:20 AM on December 12, 2011

Charles "Pa" Ingalls, Almanzo Wlder, and Cap Garland, especially based on their courage in The Long Winter.

Although Laura Ingalls Wilder's books were heavily fictionalized, the events of that book are as they happened in what is now South Dakota in the winter of 1880-81
posted by jgirl at 9:27 AM on December 12, 2011

Chester Nimitz.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:32 AM on December 12, 2011

Stanislav Petrov
posted by idiomatika at 9:57 AM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor, which he got while serving as a medic with the US Army in the Pacific theatre during WWII.
posted by Harald74 at 10:11 AM on December 12, 2011

The name that popped into my head was Justine Kerfoot.
posted by RedEmma at 10:39 AM on December 12, 2011

Dwight D. Eisenhower and Chester Nimitz are, rightfully, on this list; but don't forget Omar Bradley, too.
Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, and of course Florence Nightingale.
Ellen Sirleaf of Liberia.

On a personal front, I'd add my grandfather: Grandpop was maybe 4ft. 11inches tall, bowlegged from childhood rickets, and legally blind. He was also a dedicated and vocal opponent of Hitler and National Socialism right up until he went underground to protect his family; just because, as he'd say, "I had to: they were evil."
posted by easily confused at 12:01 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

almost forgot: the Dalai Lama
posted by easily confused at 12:27 PM on December 12, 2011

and Dietrich Bonhoffer
posted by easily confused at 1:03 PM on December 12, 2011

Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. For sure.

Hassan from The Kite Runner.

But my (male) best friend is the strongest and yet most sensitive and tender people I've ever met. If you want that story, memail me. I wouldn't have survived the last few weeks without him.
posted by guster4lovers at 3:12 PM on December 12, 2011


Please give me examples of admirably "strong people" who don't fall into the macho, no-feelings, aggressive, angry, callous, dominating, violent archetype, together with what it was about them that made them "strong".

*Bonus points if they have ever displayed insecurity, love, sadness, heartbrokenness, compassion, empathy, vulenerability or self-doubt and you can give an example of this.

So many of Dee Xtrovert's amazing posts gave examples of the type of people you are talking about. Her story about retrieving the bodies of killed soldiers is completely on point for what you are looking for.
"People don't make movies about the happiness of a young girl who finds she can reassemble people with ease, thanks to the fact that one of them ate a lot of rice earlier that day. Because it isn't very romantic or macho and it isn't full of hard-ass symbolism."
I really hope the reason she has been gone is that she is writing a book.
posted by cairdeas at 3:32 PM on December 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

I love Mandela as much as the next guy, but it's important to point out that Mandela was the leader of the ANC's armed wing. He becomes a better example when you point how Mandela has dealt with his past quite honestly and with the appropriate amount of contrition, just as it's also important to to note how the ANC had been pushed into a corner.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:29 PM on December 12, 2011

Both main characters from Up. (Almost any Pixar hero, really.)
Ofelia from Pan's Labyrinth.
Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:33 PM on December 12, 2011

I keep hitting post and thinking of something new.

Kitten, from Breakfast on Pluto.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:33 PM on December 12, 2011

Pearl Buck- she grew up in China in the first half of the 20th century under very harsh conditions, lived through the Boxer Rebellion, constantly straddled two cultures, adopted many children, wrote over 100 books, became a humanitarian activist, and started an international adoption organization.

Oprah- she's controversial but she's achieved a lot in her life, overcome a lot of challenges, and at least publicly, is an empathetic person

Maya Angelou
posted by bearette at 5:37 PM on December 12, 2011

Edmund Hillary
posted by HiroProtagonist at 5:55 PM on December 12, 2011

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords
posted by SisterHavana at 6:02 PM on December 12, 2011

Frances Perkins
posted by hefeweizen at 6:59 PM on December 12, 2011

I feel a little silly using this example, but (the fictional) Richard Castle. He lacks in maturity in many ways, but doesn't get caught so caught up in his ego that he can't be optimistic and charm his way through open hostility. I'd love to be able to shrug things off so easily. The character is successful, well-connected, and strong in my mind. What made him "strong"? Only the writers know. I just love the attitude.

Example of somebody you won't know: my husband. Incredibly smart, physically able, always with opportunities and interests. He's supported us without complaint in many ways through some really difficult times. He's one of the strongest, most resilient people I've met, yet most people would probably describe him first as gentle and soft-spoken. I believe he comes from an overall gentle, sharing background, thinks optimistically, and has a very healthy ego that doesn't require violent defense to protect from minor hits.

I never knew him, but I understand my grandfather was intelligent, self-taught, physically imposing, quite handsome, and a gentle man.

I think the commonalities here are that these men are confident in themselves and don't feel a scarcity of ego, that they maintain an optimistic outlook, and that they treat others as people who deserve basic respect. My husband and my grandfather aren't/weren't perfect by any means, and had their respective challenges, but they met and overcame them admirably.
posted by moira at 11:49 PM on December 12, 2011

Juror Number 8 from 12 Angry Men - he patiently and rationally goes up against several aggressive, dominating archetypes to give the defendant reasonable doubt. This act shows his compassion, and at times during the deliberation his vulnerabilities show through, but he stands firm to give the defendant the fair trial he deserves.
posted by illenion at 12:04 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Paulette Cooper.

From the Wikipedia article:
Cooper was born in the Auschwitz concentration camp to Belgian parents around the time they were murdered there. After spending years in various orphanages in Belgium, she was adopted by the Cooper family at age 6 and came to the United States. At age 8, she became an American citizen.

She began her freelance writing career in 1968, after completing a master's degree in psychology. As a result of her earlier study of comparative religion at Harvard University for a summer, she became interested in religious cults and began studying Scientology/Dianetics in 1968 in order to write about it.
After she wrote The Scandal of Scientology,
Paulette Cooper was the target not only of litigation but of several harassment campaigns including a Scientology campaign known as Operation Freakout, the goal of which was to deter Cooper from criticism of Scientology by having her "incarcerated in a mental institution or jail or at least to hit her so hard that she drops her attacks." In a previous campaign titled Operation Dynamite the church sent itself forged bomb threats, purportedly from Cooper, using her typewriter and paper with her fingerprints on it ...
Even after the bomb threat investigation was dropped, she was coping with 19 lawsuits against her.

Village Voice writer Tony Ortega saluted her this past Thanksgiving.
posted by kristi at 9:31 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

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