Call it what you want, but we all know it when we see it. For many of us, we've come face to face with it. We've stared into cold eyes and wondered what made someone that removed. For some, those eyes come from the mirror.
Our generation has a pretty messed up idea of toughness in a lot of ways. It's considered a strength to be harsh, aloof, unattached. It's considered part of this game we're playing, part of the "challenge." But, life is not a game, and if you're really looking for a challenge, play a game of Jenga after drinking a bottle of wine, train for a 5K, or find another outlet for your competition. Nonetheless, many have taken society's cues and become hard and downright harsh when dealing with others.
Where does this harshness come from? The fact of the matter is that life will tear each of us down at some point. We will be hurt by another. We will be lied to. We will be cheated, stolen from, used, and left feeling as though we can trust no one. Some bounce back and realize that one bad person or experience doesn't mean that everything or everyone is bad. For others, that's the end point, I suppose. That's where they get off of the bus. That's the point where they check out. That's where they decide that nothing really matters, no one but them is worthy, and there's no reason to really try to be a part of someone else's life.
Life hurts. But, it doesn't have to harden. We simply have to hold onto who we are.
I've heard it phrased many different ways, but it's all bitterness disguised:
"I don't want to get hurt."
"Everyone hurts everyone."
"I have trust issues."
"I take care of myself and look out for no one."
At one point in my life, I thought I could understand–and possibly even respect–this hardened nature. After having seen how it affects those closest to the bitter person, though, I just can't. Because, I can't wrap my mind around it. Yes, I respect independence, and as an independent person myself, I find great value in it. But, although bitterness and "trust issues" are disguised cleverly as independence, they're a far cry from legitimate independence. There's more lurking behind those words. It's arrogance. It's self-centeredness. And, those are concepts I've never quite been okay with.
The fact is, we can all be independent without being cold. In fact, the kindest people I know are some of the most independent. They don't really need anyone. They give freely. They listen. They delight in doing things for others, but they do their own thing. They take care of themselves. They're pretty content alone. The only difference between them and the hardened, though, is that they don't do "their own thing" at the expense of another. They can recognize that, while they're fine on our own, at the end of the day, what matters in life are people. Therefore, bitterness is not the answer. What good are we doing if we're constantly shutting people out, constantly putting ourselves above others?
Am I suggesting that we should forsake our own protection and our own needs for others? Not necessarily. This isn't one of those "be subservient" high-horse, soap-box moments. I'm not saying we forget about ourselves, and I'm not even taking it to the point of saying to always put others before yourself. I do believe that has power, but I'm not even getting that crazy. I'm looking even more basic than that. All I'm saying is that, at the root of our decisions, there should be at least some consideration for what our actions will do to others. I have found that, unfortunately, at the root of this jaded, "looking out for me" mindset, there is little regard for anyone else. Sure, there's much to be said about taking care of yourself and making sure that you are okay, but at what expense? If we allow ourselves to grow so hardened that we hurt others without even flinching, how are we better than those who once hurt us and hardened us?
We're not. We become part of a screwed up cycle of hurting and of creating a generation of robots who use, cut down, disregard, and cast aside–and who do it all while turning a blind eye and casting a casual, cool, almost clown-like "don't give a damn" smile in the direction of the one we've left in our shadow. If we allow ourselves to become hardened, devoid of any true connection or feeling, and jaded, we are part of the problem. Under this cycle, all we are doing is creating another wave of bitter individuals, and isn't life too short for that?
For that reason, I believe that true strength is not shown in the hardness of the heart. Instead, true strength is exhibited when one has been hurt and does not allow it to change who they are. Those who are truly strong can still see that each person offers them something different–and sometimes that hurts. Still, they do not completely shut people off. They do not use. They do not become hard. They do not discard people. They do not believe that all people are automatically bad because they've had one–or even ten or twelve or more–bad experiences. They are wise enough to see that there's still good in everyone, and they are strong enough to see the merit of each individual. The strong are those who have been through hell and still realize that people–connections–are what matter most in life. Those are the strong. And, quite honestly, I believe that bitterness has its own glaring aspects of weakness, for it is the weak who allow their circumstances to change their hearts, change who they are, and change the way they treat people.
If you are jaded and hardened, take a look at why. My guess is, you were hurt. Maybe you were left, maybe a friend turned on you, maybe you had a rough upbringing, maybe you've been let down. All of us have been hurt in some way. Don't take it out on the world, because you trusted one who didn't deserve it, but also don't assume that no one deserves your trust. While you're at it, take a minute to realize the fact that you are still allowing someone who once hurt you to remove future happiness from you. We cannot experience true joy or true connection without at least a little bit of vulnerability, trust, and willingness to look for the good in others. That is how we connect–how we find the happiness of human connection–and it's impossible to do that with such bitterness. Therefore, the one that hurt you so badly–the one who is indirectly causing you to hurt others in the name of bitterness–is still controlling your life.
My advice (and take it for what it's worth, because it's coming from the one who still believes in tenderness and sees that as a strength): we've all been hurt. Those who still have that softness have probably been hurt even more often than you have. But, it didn't change their hearts to the extent that they use others or treat others as though they don't matter. Somehow yours did, and that's okay. But, let it go. Stop shutting people out. Stop chasing those who treat you horribly because it's "easier" to feel nothing. Stop running from your feelings.
Feel. Hurt. Heal. Be tender again. Because, in the process of hardening yourself, your sharp, hard, cold edges cut those who did nothing but care for you. Don't be the reason that another wave of bitterness in born in the world. Instead, be soft enough that you, too, breed softness and kindness. At the end of the day, even if you get hurt, it's worth it knowing that you actually have the capacity to care for another and that you are, in fact, still alive, breathing, and functioning as a human with emotions.
Be soft; don't be hard. Be kind; don't be bitter. Be warm and tender; don't be cold and cutting. It's okay to feel and experience life. Stop wearing your bitterness as a badge of honor. It is not courageous to be afraid to connect, to feel, and to experience life.