When I was 5 years old I loved cats, dance class, reading, and Rescue Heroes. I played in the woods and searched for treasure. I knew I was strong and I didn’t need reasons.
When I was 12 years old I loved dogs, dance class, reading, and American Girl Dolls. I still played in the woods, but now I liked to build swords and sling shots and carve fighting staves with my Swiss Army Knife. I would play with the boys and never lost a battle or a game of Capture-the-Flag. I thought I was strong because I was smart, because I could hold a plank position for two minutes without a problem, and because I could keep up with the boys in games and sports.
Now I’m 21 years old. I love dogs AND cats. I haven’t danced in a few years but I’ve done plenty of reading during my time in college. I love coffee more than almost anything. I still spend as much time as possible in the woods, but now it’s mostly hiking. I sometimes feel like I’m strong because I don’t listen too much to my emotions, because I know how to win an argument, and because I spend some of my afternoons in Magadan boxing with a 350lb Russian ex-con.
These stages look different, but through them all there is a little girl searching for the answer to one particular question: What makes a strong woman?
And this question is hard. Because somewhere along the line that little girl who approached the world with confidence, knowing she was both strong and a princess, stopped believing that it was okay to be soft. I started believing my strength was compromised by my emotions. Softness was weakness. Tenderness was a hole in my armor. I saw emotions as something to be conquered within myself.
I was afraid of loving people, because loving them gave them something on me. They had the power to hurt me and I didn’t like it. I craved the power to be objective in my friendships and calculating in my relationships because I believed that the only way to be strong was to practice a Spartan emotional detachment from everyone. Strength seemed to lie in the ability to stand on my own, with no one beside me unless I wanted them there. A strong woman is strong on her own.
But this past week in Magadan, I have had to reevaluate what a strong woman looks like. As I’ve grown closer to the girls that we are working with, I’ve come face-to-face with a feminine strength that I wasn’t expecting to encounter.
All of these girls are strong in different ways, but for the sake of brevity I’ll only tell two of their stories here:
Yulya is about six or seven years old. She loves bunnies, castles, and coloring. Her father is in prison and her mother attacks her with a constant stream of verbal abuse. She now lives alone with her grandmother, who has worked so carefully to undo the damage of the first years of her life. When Father Michael met Yulya for the first time, she didn’t speak. She only growled. When I met Yulya a week ago, she would alternate between sitting alone in a quiet rage and shouting at me.
I’ve known Yulya for just under two weeks. Now every day she runs into the church and greets me with a hug and a smile. She likes me because I give her piggy-back rides and am good at losing in chess. I accompany her home to her grandmother’s after English class and she sits on my lap for the whole bus ride. After only a handful of days of knowing me, Yulya is willing to love me.
Yesterday, Yulya and I were hanging out after class. While the other kids played, she and I colored. She drew pictures of cats, bunnies…and her mother.
All of a sudden I realized that Yulya still loved her mom, a woman too violent and unpredictable for her to even live safely with, a woman who I hade previously chosen to hate without even having met her. Yulya doesn’t put limits on her love. She doesn’t calculate someone’s goodness before making the choice to love them. She doesn’t wait an objective amount of time before giving them her heart.
Nadia is about twelve years old. When I met Nadia last year she had recently become an aunt to baby Rustam, the son of Nadia’s sixteen-year-old sister. Last year Nadia reminded me a lot of myself. She was desperate to be seen as tough. She dressed in boxers and heavy work pants and could beat any kid in a fight. She was incredibly smart but spoke very little. She maintained a controlled and sly smile and never displayed her true emotions.
But this year I’ve noticed a change in Nadia. She doesn’t dress differently and she can still beat up anyone who looks at her sideways (both facts that do not at all detract from her femininity, but only add to her coolness), but she approaches both children and adults with a quiet compassion. She nurtures Rustam with astounding patience and is attentive to the needs of others around her as well. She is confident, but quietly so. She never asserts her own will over others, but she has a strong sense of justice and is careful to ensure that others are treated fairly. She loves to help out and has an amazing sense of humor. She loves those around her in an uncompromising way.
In these girls, I saw a femininity that wasn’t weak, but that didn’t have that quality I had so often mischaracterized as strength. These girls weren’t strong because they knew how to give love carefully and calculatingly, with their eyes on the goal of being seen as strong, removed, indifferent, confident, collected – these girls were strong because they were so stupidly generous with their love. They loved those who didn’t love them. They loved those who had mistreated them. They loved the children who played with them as well as the children who ignored them. They loved the missionaries they had spent so little time with. They loved absolutely everyone they encountered here. They poured love out in buckets. They scattered seeds all over the unreceptive ground like the sower in the parable (cf. LK 8:5f).
Even though these girls have been told they are unlovable so many times by those who should have loved them best, they are so free to give the love that has been so unfairly kept from them away.
Through the loving example of these girls, I am coming to understand that being a woman is not about wearing dresses or knowing how straighteners work or understanding the difference between baking soda and baking powder. I am coming to see that strength is not indifference or prudence or a calculating ability to refrain from loving.
I want to be a strong woman. I pray that I might become the sort of strong woman whose love has the endurance to be poured out to everyone I encounter. Because ultimately, love is not weakness; it is the quietest strength in the world.
Kaitlin and the Russia Mission Team