I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be strong, lately. Not in the physical sense, but what it means to be emotionally and mentally strong. The idea that people today — men especially — are “weaker” or “can’t handle it” is tossed around with gleeful abandon. In fact, the underlying conflict of Cobra Kai is, at its core, about the nature of strength and what it takes to become strong. In fact, much of it is rooted in the idea of “the world is an awful place and I will make you strong so you can survive”.
You can see this outlook all over the place if you make even a cursory glance on Twitter or Facebook, but especially media on the right. Folks rage about people “being pussies” for telling people what their pronouns are and, of course, the neverending outrage over “political correctness”.
You see this in sports, when football players are lauded for playing with injuries or in the pushback against trying to reign in CTE. You see it with folks — mostly men — who get called “weak” or told they’re a pussy for saying “this is too much, I need to step away or go to therapy“. People complain about how hazing has been restricted or banned and what this means for social organizations like fraternities. And of course, you can find it all over the place online, from in-game chat, on forums, Twitter, Facebook and so on. It gets cast as “trolling” or “trash talk”, while people who object are told to “suck it up,” “grow a thicker skin,” and that “trash talking and harassment is a vital part of the culture“. And of course, there’s the ever-popular “facts don’t care about your feelings”, “soy boy” and the classic “snowflake”.
People will insist that this is a good thing. That people today just aren’t as tough as those who came before. That we’re creating a world of weak, privileged, pampered infants.
In reality, it’s an excuse. It becomes a way to justify abuse and having been abused.
A Boy Named Sue
The most common form of this outlook is the idea that enduring abuse makes you stronger. You may have heard people tell you “I hurt you because you needed it,” or that “you were softer than baby shit and I had to toughen you up.” You were expected to put up with other people’s abuse because “it builds character” and that “it makes you a man”.
The idea of course, is that all of this mistreatment is a crucible; it’s the fire that tempers steel and makes it strong. It’s the trials that lead you to come out the other side ready to take on anything the world throws at you. Being able to endure pain and abuse is how you know who you really are.
Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? The pain makes you raise your game and all that.
But does it? The prevalence of complex post-traumatic stress disorder suggests otherwise. In fact, it’s safe to say that this attitude has the exact opposite effect of what is (supposedly) intended. And yet people still buy into the idea that you need to have strength beaten into you.
The rationale tends to come in two flavors.
The first is very simple: “The world is cruel and mean and this is the only way you can be ready to face it”. This outlook is based on the idea that people are inherently cruel and selfish and will take advantage of any weakness you present to them. Moreover, a better world isn’t possible; this is all baked into the very fabric of existence.
Except… this is demonstrably wrong. To start with, the world we live in has been steadily becoming safer and more peaceful. Even in the face of events like the January 6th insurrection, violence has steadily decreased, with the rates of violent crime having dropped more than 50% since the 90s. We, as a society, have built a world that would seem like a paradise to people living even 200 years ago.
Moreover, the base instinct of humanity isn’t violence or domination, it’s mutual aid and charity.
We’re pack animals; trust, mutual reliance and support for the common good are part of how we’ve survived as a species. This has been part of our heritage as humans since we evolved; the discovery of a neolithic human with a healed broken foot demonstrates just how even so-called “primitive” man put care for the weak and injured ahead of “only the strong survive”. Similarly, when catastrophe strikes, our instinct isn’t to devolve to chaos and an “every man for themselves” mindset, it’s to come together and work for the greater good.
We have seen this demonstrated over and over again — in the aftermath of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, in London during the Blitz, in Anchorage after the quake of 1965, after Katrina and Harvey… it’s a nearly universal trait in humanity. In fact, the people most likely to panic and epitomize the “fuck you, got mine” attitude that we see referenced in post-apocalyptic fantasies are the so-called “elites”, who panic and make things worse.
But of course, people will either refer to myths (such as the “marauding gangs” in New Orleans post-Katrina) to bolster the idea of a merciless world or insist that cruelty is baked into the foundations of the world. Nature, red and tooth and claw, leading to lives that are “nasty, brutish and short”, a world divided into the alphas that rule and the betas that serve. But even this falls apart if you actually look at the facts.
Baboons troupes who lose the most aggressive males actually become more pacifistic; in fact, when new baboons join the troupe, they adopt the more peaceful culture, showing that aggressive dominance is a learned trait, not an inherent one.
The idea that people need to be hurt in order to be “toughened up”, to be “ready for a world that has no mercy” is a fantasy — and a malignant one. It’s simply the justification for making the choice to hurt others in the name of “helping” them. It’s someone deciding that they would hurt others rather than fighting to make things better.
It’s the abdication of agency… often in the name of passing on the exact same pain that they endured.
The Tradition of Pain
One of the common refrains you will hear from people who lament the so-called “softness” or “weakness” of subsequent generations is how different things were in their day. That they went through the fire — whether it was physical punishment from their parents or teachers, hazing rituals or other trials — and came through better for the experience.
We call it “tradition” or “heritage, we say it’s “necessary”, that it’s a “right of passage” or a “test of manhood”… but what is actually being said is “I went through this, so you should have to as well”. But again, even a cursory examination finds that so many of the reasons given are just excuses. Hazing, for example fosters what, exactly?
Certainly not trust or unit cohesion. In fact, studies find that hazing creates mistrust and damages relationships between the person being hazed and the people inflicting the hazing on them. Exercises focused on synchronicity and working together as a single team built far more group identity and cohesion than hazing rituals. Most hazing rituals are about “putting people in their place” and maintaining the power structure, not coming together as a team. Pointing to events like boot camp in the military miss the point; boot camp is about breaking down a person’s identity and individualism, making them more willing to follow orders without hesitation.
Most of these rituals or traditions don’t foster anything other than people who think that abuse is acceptable. In fact, part of the ritual is that, after you have endured it, you get to do it to the people who come after you. It’s less about team or group identity and more about dominance — especially for those who’d been hazed; perpetuating the tradition means that they get to regain their status by dominating others. It’s the reward for having gone through the pain: being able to inflict it on others… even though you hated it.
Or course, while demonstrating power and dominance over others is the point of hazing, there’s also the underlying message: that empathy and compassion are flaws. That choosing to not inflict this pain is doing both them and you a disservice. If you choose to not take part, then you’re harming them and the group. You are leaving them vulnerable by not burning their compassion out. You must be willing to cause harm in order to teach them that people will hurt them if they aren’t strong enough to stop them.
By that same token, though, not taking the opportunity to impose your will on others implies that you don’t have the strength to do so. That, in turn, opens you up to being dominated again. Worse, it implies that you on some level deserve to be dominated by others. And if you protest the necessity of the abuse, you’re only validating your weakness in the eyes of others.
You have to stop and think about what it says when someone undergoes pain, trauma and abuse and thinks that the best thing they can do is to be able to inflict that on others.
What, exactly does it say when a mark of good character is a willingness to do unto others a thing you hated being done to you?
Well… about that.
It Was All For Nothing
For all that people insist on mistreating others in the name of making them stronger, the truth is that they aren’t doing this to help. The argument that the world is cruel and hard and mean and to survive, you need to be crueler, harder and meaner is ultimately window-dressing. It’s a way of hiding from the truth.
And the truth is that the people who yell the loudest about “snowflakes” and “soyboys” are the weakest. They want the trappings of strength. They want the appearance of dominance. But most of all… they want to justify what they had gone through.
You see this most clearly with people who insist that they were hazed or spanked or beaten as children and they turned out just fine.
Except… they didn’t. They turned out as people who think that hitting a child isn’t just acceptable or necessary but laudable.
Instead, what they’re really saying is that they need to believe that this was necessary. They need to believe that their suffering had some greater purpose to it. The abuse they experienced is, in a very real way, central to their identity and as such it must have meaning. Otherwise, they’re forced to admit that what they experienced was needless and pointless cruelty, often for the sake of being cruel.
It’s similar, in its way, to people who insist that it would be unfair to forgive student debt. Much as with people who insist that hitting a child is necessary, this is about avoiding the truth. People would rather cripple the economy and destroy the future of young adults than face that they too were exploited by a faceless system. It’s easier to pretend that the sacrifice is essential than it is to accept that their own suffering had no purpose except to enrich others. This wasn’t an investment in their future; it was simply an oblation to a system that they will never have a place in.
For many, breaking the cycle of abuse would first mean confronting truths they don’t want to face. If they treat their children this way in the name of love, that means that their parents loved them. If they haze or abuse others in the name of “unity” or “heritage”, it means that their abuse and humiliation had meaning.
But it didn’t.
Maybe their abusers — parents, teachers, peers — had the same motivation. They kept the cycle alive because they needed to believe that there was a point to it.
But it didn’t.
The truth is that yes, they were abused for no reason. They weren’t tempered in fire, they were tortured because someone thought it was good to torture them. The hardship and pain they went through WAS meaningless. It didn’t make them stronger. It didn’t bring them closer to others or cemented them as a team. All it created was distrust, pain, sadism. It caused trauma bonding, justifying their abuse by pretending it was in the name of something greater.
The people who hurt them lied to them. This wasn’t “for their own good”. It wasn’t “necessary”. It wasn’t important.
And for those who advocate the strongest for perpetuating the system, the alternative would mean recognizing that people hurt him because they just wanted to hurt someone and dressed it up with noble sounding bullshit. So instead, they double and triple down on that belief. And worse, they continue to dress up pain with bullshit.
The Fire Didn’t Make You Strong
The most perverse thing about the cycle is how much the pain itself is ennobled and deified. You find this all over the place, dressed up in motivational Instagram posts. “Pain is just weakness leaving the body”. No it isn’t; pain is the sign that something is wrong. Pain didn’t make you raise your game, it made things harder for you.
But even those who will agree that the abuse was wrong and pointlessly cruel will rhapsodize the pain itself. Too many people have heard “the abuse you went through made you strong. It made you strong enough to be kind”. No, it fucking well did not. Abuse and pain doesn’t make someone kinder or gentler, no matter who experiences it or why. They chose to make themselves kind. The pain didn’t give them strength, their strength was there all along. In fact, the kindest people you know are often the strongest, not because they went through the shit but because they were able to say “no more. This ends here.” The fact that they were able to tap into it and break the cycle speaks to their own resilience and compassion. Giving credit to their abuse — and by extension their abuser — is disgusting; it implies that their abuse was somehow necessary. That it was justified by the end result. It implies that that person could not exist without having been abused.
It says that in the end, their abuse was a gift and that the person who abused them did so for their own good. This is the same mindset as “my abuse gave you the strength to dominate others”. It may be the opposite side, but it’s the same fucking coin.
And quite frankly, the idea that pain is the fire that tempers steel is bullshit in and of itself. Tempering metal isn’t just about subjecting it to as much heat as possible. Fire can burn steel, irreparably damaging its internal structure, making it brittle. Quench it the wrong way and steel cracks and breaks on use. Pain doesn’t make people strong; it creates flaws and voids that can cause catastrophic failures. You only have to look at the most outspoken advocates of that outlook. Look at how brittle they are. How quick they are to anger, how easily they get upset. How fast they become defensive if someone disagrees or challenges them or things don’t go their way.
Hell, we only have to look at the last several months to see how cruelty and pain doesn’t make you strong. We just lived through a coup attempt led by people who couldn’t handle the idea that the majority of the country disagree with them. They couldn’t face the possibility that they could lose, nor did they have the strength to accept the loss. They didn’t have the fortitude, the wisdom or the courage to accept the truth and take time to rebuild, find another approach and come back stronger. Instead, they lashed out in a fatal temper tantrum.
And — in a note so poetic it’s practically in classic Greek — they were led, incited and cheered on by the most fragile and brittle man alive. Their paragon of masculinity and strength is a man so famously delicate that he can’t tolerate the slightest criticism or confrontation. He’s someone who’s infamous for surrounding himself with Yes Men because disagreement drives him into a rage and the slightest push-back makes him fall to pieces.
Abuse has never made anyone stronger. It has only made it harder for them to access their own strength. It’s made it more difficult for them to be able to be kind. Cruelty isn’t strength, nor does it breed strength. It just breeds more cruelty and people mistake that for strength.
It’s the Compassion That Makes You Strong
The truth is that strength isn’t about dominance. Nor is it in the ability to cause pain or to just take it without question.
Strength isn’t born from pain; strength is born from compassion — for others and for yourself. The willingness to be kind, to be gentle — even in a world that can be hostile to gentleness and kindness — is a true sign of strength. And you see that strength every day in the people who reject cruelty and who choose to fight to make the world better.
The kindest people you know are often the strongest, in no small part because they choose to be kind. They have gone through the shit, but they have chosen not to let those scars erode their soul. They aren’t strong because they can endure pain; they’re strong because they choose not to let the pain change who they are. They’re often the ones who went through the fire, came out the other side and resolved that nobody else should have to suffer like that.
Now this isn’t to say that the world can’t be cruel or unfair. It can be. As the sage says, the world can be a mean, nasty place that will beat you to your knees if you let it. But strength isn’t about changing yourself to survive by inflicting that cruelty on others. Nor is it about declaring that the world is implacable and unchangeable and there are no other choices but to join it.
Strength is looking at the world and saying “It doesn’t have to be like this.” Strength is looking at the world and saying “we can make it better than this.”
And the way you build that strength is to choose kindness and compassion. To let yourself be vulnerable, to be your authentic self. And to have the compassion to love yourself the way you would want others to love you… and to love others the way you would want to be loved.