Beneath her beauty and strength lies her courage.
I’ve always loved this statue of Nike of Samothrace who reminds me to embrace the divine masculine and feminine of my humanity and to remember where my strength really abides…
Within my courage.
Courage isn’t an external force of strength or beauty. Courage lies within as the true embodiment of our inner physique. All bodies break down over time yet it is our inner strength, which is built from the fire of our courage, that will keep us going.
I used to put all my faith in the strength my external body. As a theatre artist and athlete, I lived for performance in one form or another and my body was my primary tool of expression.
Then everything changed with a fall and a spine injury, altering its form and function 12 years ago. I was devastated. I had placed so much value on my outer physique that I felt entirely ‘less than’ and my self-worth plummeted. Everything became difficult — moving, being still, lying down, and all the in-betweens.
I exchanged my hiking boots and gym membership for non-slip tread hospital socks and rehabilitation gyms and pools. I ditched the kayak oars and soccer balls for underwater treadmills and parallel bars. I stopped taking headshots and starting taking lumbar MRIs. I wrestled daily with equal parts pain, pride, and perseverance.
THEN THE REAL WORK BEGAN
Chronic pain became a constant companion; so did loneliness as many of my favorite people faded away. I sincerely don’t fault anyone for moving on with their lives—the reality is that I couldn’t keep up with them anymore. In body and spirit, I felt like I had transitioned from being a vibrant, charismatic 28-year-old to a 98-year-old woman with severe muscle atrophy and a missing sense of humor. (Genuine, mad love for all the 28 and 98 year olds reading this post.)
Deep joy, fun, and lightheartedness fell away; day-to-day living was weighted with grief. The mere acting of putting on my socks was so excruciating that social activities, dates, and even relationships felt completely out of reach. Tears took up residence and the deep belly laughter I adored took a long holiday. I couldn’t show up like I desired for others; I could barely show up for myself.
In those first few years after the accident, my weight climbed and my courage plummeted. While lying in bed one day, I remember crying and looking at an image of this Nike statue hanging in my room. Would I feel true strength again? Would I feel beautiful again? Would I even feel like myself again?
FIRST COURAGE, THEN STRENGTH
Depression had crept in and social anxiety deepened its roots. I wasn’t sure how to rebuild strength when everything—no matter how small—was pure challenge. I felt myself and my faith unraveling.
One particular evening in the wheelchair days, I attempted to transition from the bed to the room’s portable toilet to go to the bathroom. (You know, the little things.) I had successfully made this transition on my own earlier that day and my ego was hungry for another win.
You know well what happened next, don’t you? I fell, landing between the toilet and bed in a crumpled heap. Pain seared through my body in lightening bolts and thunderous waves. I started to cry and vomit simultaneously. My body lost control of itself and my bladder begin to empty right there on the floor, urine pooling beneath me and running down a leg.
Darkness had filled the room yet in that moment of messy pain, pee, and pride, something else did too. A small, quiet, methodical voice, rising up from within my weary soul.
“I am here. You are strong. You are held. Keep going.”
Lying alone on the cold floor, half-naked and reeking with pee, I realized the strength I was seeking was already there, divinely held within my crumpled body. It wasn’t in the rehabilitation exercises, the athletic milestones, the toned muscles, or the scale. All these external accomplishments were simply results to the powerful blend of inner strength and courage in motion. In the heart of physical weakness, I was beginning to comprehend what even good ol’ Nike of Samothrace knew; true strength and beauty are carved from the inside out when we put our courage into actual practice.
Crying on the floor, trusting I was being held, I chose to keep listening:
“You have more steps to take, Tonyalynne.
You have more strength to build.
You have never been more beautiful than you are right now.
You have more to contribute.
You have much to unlearn.
You have deep love to give but it must begin here.
Right here, on this floor…with yourself.”
The image on my wall years ago.
THE UNLEARNING PRACTICE
I’ll be honest. My thoughts were all over the place that night.
‘Well, damn’ came to mind.
So did ‘HOW?’ on repeat.
And a few “I’m not sure I can” moments came forward too.
All I ever heard in reply was ‘One step at a time. Literally.’
Such a bloody over-used phrase but in this particular situation, it gutted me.
On the floor that night, I ‘unlearned’ that strength isn’t just found in the moments we actually make it successfully to the toilet but also in all the moments we actually don’t and keep going anyway. It was time to get over myself. I needed to drop the guilt, shame, and feeling sorry for myself and begin making friends with my courage. Time to begin strength-training from within.
Learning how to walk again was one thing; unlearning how to detach self-worth from my external form and function was quite another after years of hinging much of my value upon outer strength and beauty. Here’s the thing: beneath all the heavy influences of social conditioning, cultural expectations, shame, and familial upbringing, my relationship to my body remains mine alone. Loving our bodies as they are is hard. Full stop.
Shedding the belief that my outer shape, size, or mobility holds the measuring stick to my contributions, beauty, or worth is one of the deepest unlearnings I’ve ever navigated. Simply put, I’m still unlearning this today.
HERE IS WHAT I KNOW TO BE TRUE
Photo courtesy of Arianna Bradford Photography
Every body has a story. Every single one. The courage practiced within these stories, though, is what brings our strength and beauty forward. This is why we can experience beauty in the most unlikely of places and strength in the darkness on the cold, barren floor of our lives.
Now let me say this as plainly as I can. External strength and beauty are absolutely fabulous but we simply place too much value upon them. We use them as a benchmark for worth in deeply unconscious ways.
When I feel triggered about my body is when I need to listen. Triggers can show up within us quietly, by way of blog posts, people, by gaining a few pounds, missing a workout, or when we’re scrolling social media like it’s a comparison rolodex of some kind. When these triggers arise within me, I know it’s time to look the trigger in the eye. Triggers are invitations to look inward. Each trigger is a shadow we have yet to love into the light of our awareness.
I’m currently ‘unlearning’ how to respect my body as the temple for my strength and beauty rather than the icon of my strength and beauty. Our culture regularly demands otherwise. Yet what we think of our outsides—or someone else’s, for that matter—often reveals the truth of our insides and the place of our deepest work; where inner strength-training can begin.
A couple months ago, I was talking with a professional athlete who injured her spine in a soccer match. When she took the fall, she was at the top of her game. And someday not too far from now she will be again but I’ll never forget what she said as we briefly swapped stories:
“It changes you, doesn’t it? Not just your body…but everything…everything changes.”
I couldn’t have summarized it any better. Twelve years later, my outer strength continues to be shaped and chiseled upon the foundation of my inner strength and courage. Some days are damn hard, friends. Some days are fabulous. And then there are those days I honestly really fuck it up and resist the reality of my limitations. Then I’m back on the floor.
Here’s what remains, though: the small inner voice, nudging me along. The one nudging you along too.
Maybe it’s God. Maybe it’s courage. Maybe it’s strength. Maybe it’s Nike of Samothrace. The name really doesn’t matter; our listening and response does every time.
“Keep going. One step at a time. Literally. There is more to learn, unlearn, and give.”