The paradox of heroism, vulnerability, and compassion

Immersed in profound admiration and compassion, the Chinese kids watched MK suffering between rebellion and defeat.

Bond Wang
4 min readNov 23, 2023
Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

“……What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”

“Stand a little taller……”

For quite a long time, this song reverberated across the globe. In the meantime, American superhero films hit all the silver screens on Earth. The stories were laden with crises and heroism as much as they were like the conveyer-belt mechanic products.

The hero is beaten badly first. Then they come back stronger and win the war.

It’s like someone is shouting at us, suffering is good, adversity is a gift.

They make you stronger, win the war.

It was one of my first cultural shocks. For most Chinese growing up the in 70s and 80s, our hero was a monkey — the Monkey King from the folklore “Journey to the West.” He was assigned by the King in heaven to escort the Master Monk Tang to India. The heaven designed eighty-one battles on their journey — reasons? No idea. Maybe “Suffering is good”? Anyway, to make sure Monkey King was strong enough to win the battles, heaven instilled seventh-two skills into his body. How lucky! But despite his marvelous prowess, MK couldn’t win nearly one-third of the battles. They often ended up with him having to seek help from the more powerful masters in heaven.

It was a kicking, rebellious monkey after all. He often bickered with his master, played pranks on his colleagues just for fun, and attempted to quit multiple times on the journey. Immersed in profound admiration and compassion, the Chinese kids watched MK suffering between rebellion and defeat.

Even after overcoming all the adversity and sending the master to India successfully, it seemed the monkey never turned into a true hero in the human standard. When asked what prize he wanted as the reward for the mission, he pleaded to return to his farm to raise horses. The seventy-two skills were all gone wasted.

We loved him as much as Americans love their Captain America, if not more.

It’s a far-off memory now. The world is now permeated with the hardcore heroism represented by Captain America. It seems every defeat he encounters is nothing but a doping drug — he comes back stronger, ready to seize greater victories.

This heroism seems to be ingrained in the scripts of our daily lives. Regardless of where you are, or what culture you grew up with, I don’t see we have any chance to act unscripted for long. When my wife was fighting against terminal cancer, all her friends, from both the west and east, sent the same greetings, “Stay strong, you will win.”

However, watching my wife fade out in her final days, I couldn’t help but question the validity of the mantra. In the face of extreme adversity, where does this unwavering strength lead us? My wife fought valiantly for years, seemingly winning battles, until she was admitted to hospice. Six weeks later, she found her peace in the other world. We since followed a YouTube celebrity family where the housewife was fighting the same cancer. She only stayed in hospice for one week before passing away. Then her family came out and said, “She beat the cancer. She stopped her life; in that way she killed the cancer.”

Amid the immense compassion, I felt a tinge of cringe. I couldn’t feel the pain my wife felt in her final days, but I certainly felt how strong the cancer was. It was howling and devouring, roared in my ears, “I am inviiiiiiiincible.”

Months have passed now. Whenever the memory comes up today I feel all but strength. Maybe our battles aren’t always about becoming stronger; perhaps, they’re about understanding our vulnerability. As the writer Brene Brown noted, “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.”

And honestly, while I struggle to catch the feeling of being stronger, I find more peace in acknowledging my vulnerability and the fragility of life. I start to call my friends and family members that I didn’t call for years. I seek solace from them, and ask for help. I become restrained in saying “Stay strong”. I tell my suffering friends, “Hang on… it will be over.”

In the wake of extreme adversity, the growth is real. However, I become increasingly uncertain whether the growth is accomplished by becoming stronger. The grief is real. The vulnerability is real. I can only find peace after recognizing that growth comes not only from what doesn’t destroy us. It also comes from what humbles us and leads us to the acceptance of vulnerability.



Bond Wang

Forget injuries, never forget kindness. Hey, I write about life, culture, and daydreams. Hope I open a window for you, as well as for myself.