Last week, while filling the baby’s water bottle in the kitchen, Hannah—my spunky 3-year old—raced into the house crying that her arm hurt. I asked her what happened and she brushed by me withholding a response. She melted into the couch in an inert and extremely-unlike-Hannah stupor.
My husband returned home shortly after Hannah’s mystery accident. Despite our cajoling, coaxing and bribery-filled interrogation, Hannah refused to even admit that her arm hurt anymore nevermind providing any clues as to what happened. Even though she could muscle her way through every range of motion, she exhibited signs of something-not-quite-rightness: using her left (eg. non-dominant hand) to eat dinner, demanding assistance while changing her clothes even though she swaps dresses and shoes multiple times within an hour, and relentlessly protesting in the form of epic meltdowns at any mention of doctor or hospital.
After consulting my dear friend—also, conveniently a pediatric nurse—we put Hannah to bed with the intention of visiting our own pediatrician in the morning and avoiding, at all costs, an ER situation. After nearly a full day passed between a doctor’s office, the x-ray clinic and finally the orthopedic wing of the Children’s Hospital, Hannah was garbed in a fluorescent pink cast extending from shoulder to wrist. She never cried, developed her alibi, nor did she confess that she felt any pain.
On one hand, I’m awestruck by my child and the scope of her will. She sucked it up, muscled through the agony and steadfastly clung to her story that she felt OK. She refused to let emotions get the best of her and she, all-in-all, made a beautiful spring day stuck in a hospitable a bearable, if not pleasurable, experience. On the other hand, her stubbornness and downright relentless refusal to disclose her story and admit that she needed some help worried me.
In my tough-as-nails Hannah, I caught a glimpse of my mother, my aunt’s, my sisters and of course, myself. We are the strong-willed women who never say no to anyone’s request, can’t sit down during dinner parties because we incessantly prepare and clean, and would rather totally sabotage a situation before asking for help. In Hannah’s determined face, 31 years of my total, utter and unforgiving stubbornness flashed before my very eyes. “Uh-oh!” I pondered to myself during my epiphanic vision, “I’ve got to help her break this cycle.”
I’m proud to have an offspring who, though she may look like her father, clearly takes after moi. I mean, I like me and I’ll forever cherish the episodes where my tenacity and persistence have worked in my favor. For example, the resilience and unwavering strength I demonstrated during my two drug-free, totally natural labors. Or, the fact that I’ve remained consistent and committed to teaching and practicing yoga over the past 10 years.
But I’ve seen the other side of the coin while fighting with my mom or my husband and in those super heartbreaking fall outs with dear friends. In excess, stubbornness—the kind that swallows any hint of vulnerability—is strength’s evil twin. When unmonitored, stubbornness is nothing more than stiffness in thought and body; it’s impermeable rigidity that creates boundaries inhibiting acts of love and kindness from entering or exiting our being.
Since this incident with Hannah, I’ve been reflecting on the qualities of strength and stubbornness and the difference between resilience and rigidity. Strength, strong-will and even stubbornness, when applied appropriately, make change possible. If individuals never embraced and utilized their strength (stubbornness included), situations could never change; growth might never occur. An unchecked or excess of resiliency is rigidity; strength gone awry. Rigidity results from a lack of discernment; namely, the ability to discriminate between an event that requires strength and that which demands a softening and a total surrender to the grace and love of others.
Our yoga practice is a perfect illustration of this concept. One of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras reads, “Sthira sukham asanam.” (Ironically, Hannah has this one memorized). In english, the asana (=posture, seat) should be both steady and comfortable; balanced between ease and effort. Building mental and physical prowess takes time and patience. The pursuit of strength is a worthwhile endeavor. However, strength is a double edged sword. If we consistently grunt through our practice (or any exercise), stick to a strict agenda that compromises and over-stresses our alignment, our comfort and our mobility in the name of strength, we will become rigid and immobile; injuries will prevail. Mobility, freedom of movement and the ability to be fluid AND strong exemplify the balance of the stability of sthira and the freedom, happiness and comfort of sukha. Strength that cannot breath is stiff; it’s lifeless.
Stubbornness basically means we’ve made up our minds before entering into the situation. Out of fear (probably) or some equally comfortable-but-unhealthy aversion, the narrative in our heads is set in stone and we close ourselves off to any other alternate outcome. Simply put, we’re not present in the moment or available to anyone including ourselves. Our practice—defined by our journey into intention and attention—provides a space to develop and cultivate discernment and bring new layers of perspective and presence to our lives. Equipped with the lense of discernment, we won’t necessarily stumble into our stubborn autopilot-like habits or replay the same old, out-dated (sorry-but-it’s-a-pretty-lame-excuse) story. Instead, we approach the situation wholeheartedly and appropriately, recruiting the right tools and the most effective attributes.
Hannah is a small child, she responds to instincts and she imitates. As her caretaker, she subconsciously relies on my discernment and my reactions. The way I handle situations that involve her or situations she observes leave impressions on her judgement. I’ve got a lot of work to do as her mother and for myself to break this cycle of stubbornness. I aspire to demonstrate acts of honorable stubbornness (eg. in matters of human rights and social justice) and to also show her that I can humbly ask for help. For the next three weeks, that enormous hot pink cast will remind me to discern before acting and try on vulnerability for size, to practice functional and breathable strength and to, ultimately, let my story change, evolve, feel and become more inclusive.