Strength vs. Discernment

A common measure of progress in any endeavor is the development of enhanced strength or power.

  • In competitive sports such as wrestling, boxing or football, the person who is physically stronger almost always has an advantage. 
  • It's obviously good for people to be strong enough to withstand dangerous urges or impulses, such as the need for an addict to resist the compulsion to engage in addictive behavior.
  • Similarly, a person with a history of excessive anger must be strong enough to successfully resist the urge to become verbally abusive during an argument.

There are countless other examples where inner strength of resolve is necessary to a better life. But strength is not always the best resource to bring to a challenge. Take the above example of an addict struggling against the urge to relapse. By the time it takes every ounce of strength to resist the temptation, the outcome is uncertain at best. Similarly, the person who is prone to rage is in a very riskly situation once an argument has already become heated.

This is where the ability to discern the likelihood of a future outcome is more important than the strength required to win a battle once it has begun.  Developing the ability to distinguish the likely outcome of various choices before they have already occured is an exceedingly vital skill.

I recently heard a short anecdote about an exchange between a karate and aikido student.  The karate student boasts "my sensei (teacher) taught me how to punch through a wall with my fist", to which the aikido student calmly replies, "mine taught me to open the door."  Strength is not always what is called for.

A similar distinction is the value of avoiding versus escaping a dilemma. The more a person is capable of seeing the long-term potential outcomes of his or her immediate behavior, the wiser that person is becoming. Returning to a martial arts metaphor, the true master knows the immense value of avoiding a confrontation rather than engaging one, even though he or she might easily emerge victorious by virtue of superior strength or skill.

So by all means develop your strength for the times you will need it the most, but make your ultimate goal the ability to enhance your discernment so that you can avoid the need to put your strength to the test. This can be summed up in one sentence:

Be wise when you can and be strong only when you must.


Bill Herring, LCSW, CSAT is an experineced Atlanta counselor and therapist.  His respectful, motivational and non-confrontational approach effectively helps individuals and couples live a happier and more meaningful life. Mr. Herring offers discreet and confidential counseling and consultation for a wide variety of life issues. He is also a nationally recognized specialist on compulsive sexual behavior and chronic sexual infidelity.