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Finding The Power In Being Weak

We all have days where nothing seems to go as planned. Then, we have days where everything is a disaster, or at least, it feels that way while events are happening.

My disaster was more of a morning rather than an entire day, but that was enough. Faced with a number of deadlines, some self-imposed others established by external factors, I was already feeling a bit stressed when one of the kittens knocked a shot glass off the counter, causing it to break. Frustration. That was the last shot glass from that set. I cursed at the cat and cleaned up the mess.

Get the kids out the door, which is never an easy challenge, pause for a cup of coffee, then start prepping a photo that needed to ship this week to avoid higher fees. I have the frame sitting on the table, barely get the photo in the frame and the back re-secured when the same kitten decides to knock the frame off the table.

Glass shattered everywhere and I lost it. I don’t print standard sized images. Frames are difficult to find and replacement glass frequently has to be custom cut. With time already being limited, I feared that any hope of meeting the deadline, having the image hung, and any positive results that might be forthcoming, was all lying splintered across the kitchen floor. This was more than I could handle at that moment.

Kat came to my rescue. She removed me from the room, cleaned up the mess, and committed to making sure we met the deadline even though that required some scheduling sacrifice on her part. Meds followed along with several hours of much-needed sleep. By the next day, I was back to my normal, grumbly, self.

Everyone has days, moments, and events like that. We’re pressing along, stress building up often without our direct awareness, we start losing a bit of sleep, our schedule gets altered a bit, and then that one thing happens, maybe it’s significant or perhaps it’s small, but something happens that pushes us over the edge. We’re done.

Eventually, we get through the event, pick up the pieces, and move on. What often happens next, though, is a problem. Whether self-induced or externally fed, we start being bombarded by the judgment of having failed. We slipped. We weren’t strong when we needed to be strong. We were weak and being weak is unacceptable.

Regardless of their source, we fight these thoughts because of a social expectation that, as adults, we have to stay on top of things. We have to solve all the problems ourselves, we have to know the answers to every question, and we have to perform these feats of amazing emotional strength while smiling and giving off positive vibes and making sure we don’t crush anyone else’s spirits in the process.

We live in a society that does not give anyone room to fail. One slip is all it takes, one moment of foolishness, that one time where one just wasn’t thinking, and promising careers are tossed right out the window. Talent is shut down, put in a closet, refused any opportunity to apologize and continue, and blacklisted for the remainder of one’s life, all over one moment of failure.

Mind you, I’m not excusing criminal behavior. There are always consequences to our actions even when our actions were not intentional. Most of our failures, however, fall well outside the realm of criminality. We are most frequently condemned, or condemn ourselves, simply because of the fact that in that one moment we couldn’t be strong. We slipped. We cracked. How dare we?

When I talk about being weak, I’m defining the word as those moments where we allow ourselves to give up some level of control, to not be in charge, to not be the one making all the decisions, removing ourselves from any position of authority for the express purpose of not merely taking care of ourselves, but allowing someone else to assist us, allowing someone else to take the credit, giving others the chance to demonstrate what they can do. Being weak is not a position of self-pity, abdication of resolve, or complete dismissal of moral obligations. Rather, it is that position from which we can admit we don’t have answers, can find compromise on difficult issues, and where we don’t have to get our own way. Weak is the necessary balance to being strong.

As I’ve grown exceedingly older, I am finding more instances where “being strong” is not the appropriate response to an event or action. There are times when being strong is toxic, dangerous, and sometimes absolutely immoral. At the same time, being weak allows one a chance to heal, provides perspective and humility, and gives others a chance to be strong.

There’s a lot to unpack here as we tear down some popular preconceived ideas. Refill the coffee cup and let’s get started.

Being strong can be toxic

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As a society, we have this misconception that being strong is an “always on” proposition. There is no “off” mode, no moment in which we are not on top of the situation and in total control. What we are doing is creating a virtual no-fly zone around our emotions so that we’re never in a position where we might be overwhelmed.

Having a handle on a situation is generally a good thing, but when we create that no-fly zone we risk being toxic not only to ourselves but to others. Sure, certain moments require that we rise above our emotions in order to achieve critical functions. If one’s house catches fire, for example, our first goal is to make sure everyone gets out safely. Call for emergency services. There’s no space in that moment to worry about saving Grandma’s 65-year-old Tupperware. One has to be strong to ensure everyone’s safety.

Once we get past that critical point, however, the need for that strong person diminishes. Crying is acceptable. Mourning all that’s lost is necessary. Worrying about what to do next is natural and aids in problem solving. When we don’t allow ourselves to feel those emotions and go through those steps of grieving, we are being toxic toward ourselves. Worse yet, if we don’t allow others to process their own feelings, especially children, we are spreading our toxicity to them.

If you’ve ever had a parent or someone else respond to an injury with the words, “just walk it off,” you’ve likely been a victim of toxic strength. We do the same thing with emotional hurts as well. “Suck it up.” “Just look for the silver lining.” “Stop being so dramatic.” Those are all examples of a strong person telling a weak person that their weakness is wrong. That kind of toxicity is damaging, especially when dumped onto children who are already battling with uncertain emotions.

None of this is to say that being strong isn’t a positive character trait in most cases. People who are strong overcome obstacles and challenges and get things done that no one ever expected them to do. Being strong can be a wonderful thing, up to a point.

Yet, what we find too often is that we take that strength too far. Because we went above and beyond under one set of circumstances, we expect ourselves to repeat that performance and we tend to expect the same if not more from others.

How do we know when our strength becomes toxic? Here are a few hints:

  • You sleep less than six hours a night because “there’s too much work to be done.”
  • You rarely take a day off and when you do you’re still doing work-related tasks rather than spending time with your family or a hobby.
  • You can’t remember the last time you had time for sex and it’s not because you don’t have a willing partner.
  • Because you put in 18 hour days you expect everyone around you to do the same.
  • You get upset when your family asks you to spend time with them.
  • You fail to acknowledge setbacks and failures, whether they’re yours or someone else’s.
  • People regularly accuse you of being too aggressive or overbearing and you don’t understand why.
  • Your “words of encouragement” make people cry.
  • You get upset when someone cries.

One can be strong without becoming toxic simply by realizing that everyone, including you, has limits that need to be respected. Sometimes our greatest feat of strength is telling ourselves to stop.

Being strong has a dangerous side

Old Man Talking

The university that I actually attended (as opposed to the one that bestowed an honorary doctorate on me) was not known as an athletic powerhouse. Our student body was divided between the pure academics and the artsy-fartsy crowd. Our school did play NAIA basketball, though, so there were a handful of athletes in the dorm, all on scholarship, all focused on doing whatever it is athletes do.

One evening, while walking down the hallway in the dorm, and only a couple of days prior to a game with a  major conference rival, I passed one of the basketball players and couldn’t help noticing he was limping rather severely. “Oh man, don’t tell me you’re out for Saturday’s game,” I said, expecting the worst.

“Nah, it’s okay,” he assured me. “Just a little banged up in practice. It’ll be fine by tomorrow.”

Saturday’s game came and went, he scored a bunch of points, no sign of a limp.

A couple of days later, though, I pass him again and notice the same limp. “Are you sure you’re okay? That limp look pretty serious.”

Again, he made what seemed to be a reasonable excuse and since I know next to nothing about the sport I let it go.

We had similar exchanges at the same point for three successive weeks. Then, just before conference finals, the sad announcement came that he had blown his knee and would be out for the rest of the season. What happened?

He was determined to be strong and carry the team through to the conference championship or further. He was so determined in that goal that he used over-the-counter pain relievers, ice packs, and topical lotions to mask the pain and keep the truth away from the team’s trainer. He swore his roommate to silence. His opinion was that he had to be strong for the team, he could address the injury during the offseason.

The injury didn’t wait for the offseason, though, and not only was he out for the rest of that season, he was unable to return the next, either. His basketball career was finished.

Persevering through hardship and fatigue is admirable right up to the point that it starts doing us harm. What your brain is telling you no longer matters when your body says to stop.

Here’s another example: Just this past week, the Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents a large number of the nation’s air traffic controllers, issued a warning that the government shutdown is putting air safety at risk because controllers are more fatigued than normal. Understand, we’re talking about one of the most overworked professions in the world. These people are strong well beyond any normal definition of the word.

Here are federal employees that are accustomed to working 88 hour weeks and now, since they’re not getting paid, they’re taking side jobs to pay the bills. If they’re taking side jobs, that means they’re getting sometimes as little as two hours’ sleep before going back to work. Representatives warn that it’s only a matter of time before someone makes a critical error, putting lives at risk.

This goes right back to that concept we were taught as children to “walk it off.” No, don’t walk it off. Stop, address the injury right now, even if it means losing a game, missing a deadline, or possibly even forfeiting a job. When one is putting their own life and/or the lives of others at risk in the name of being strong, we have a problem.

FInal example: long haul truck drivers. They have a schedule to keep. If they don’t get a load in on time, they’re the ones held accountable. These men and women are strong: nerves of steel, resolve of iron, and bladders that can hold an entire 56 ounce soda for seven hours. When bad weather or traffic puts them in danger of missing a delivery, they kick into high gear, drive longer than the legally mandated limit,and push on to make sure those strawberries are on the store shelves the next day.

Unfortunately, we’ve all seen what happens when being “strong” just isn’t enough. A driver doesn’t have to fall asleep at the wheel, just be tired enough to be distracted at the wrong moment during morning rush hour and suddenly the truck’s on its side, strawberries are everywhere, and no one’s getting to work on time. If all goes well, no one gets hurt, but too many times that’s not the case.

One’s desire to be strong should never put any life in danger. When it does, it’s time to back down.

Being strong is sometimes immoral

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Seems odd, doesn’t it, that such a sought-after character trait could be immoral? Yet, it can and there are a number of examples that you likely know by name. Here are a few:

Attila the Hun
Queen Mary I of England, aka Bloody Mary
Japanese Emperor Hirohito
Genghis Khan
Muammar Gaddafi
Roman Emperor Nero
Jim Jones (People’s Temple cult leader)
Saddam Hussein
Osama bin Laden
Idi Amin Dada
Pol Pot
Joseph Stalin
Adolf Hitler
Charles Manson

While, on one hand, we might be tempted to question the mental stability of any of these people, what is certain is that they were all committed to being strong. They each persevered and, to various degrees, triumphed in the face of direct opposition. Each pushed forward regardless of their physical condition or limitations. Every last one of them went beyond what was expected of them and some of them built great dynasties in the process. Many rose up from a place of oppression and poverty. These are people who knew how to achieve, people who set personal goals and surpassed them, and inspired others to follow them with supreme devotion. Up to a point, they are the very definition of what it means to be strong.

Then, they took it too far. The same strength that brought them to a place of leadership allowed them to commit unspeakable acts of atrocities that we hope are never repeated. The tales are legendary, but there are some facts that are undeniable.

Consider that, thanks to Hirohito, the Chinese capitol of Nanking (or Nanjing, depending on who is doing the translation) was so thoroughly devastated, hundreds of thousands killed and as many as 80,000 women raped, that 12 years later, in 1849, the capitol had to be moved to Beijing.

How do we know that building walls as a barrier to stopping determined people won’t work? Genghis Khan breached the strongest one ever built. He also went on to so thoroughly destroy both Asia and Europe that the region that was once Persia did not fully recover its population until 1959.

Pol Pot relocated a full third of the Cambodian population, put them to work in fields growing food they were not allowed to eat, and then killed them in those fields.

Understand, the immoral atrocities committed by these people and others like them require strong, charismatic people who inspire those around them to think like them, follow the ideals they set forward, and mimic their mindsets. If they had known social media, they each would have had Instagram accounts with millions of followers and would have inspired thousands of memes.

While these examples seem extreme and are, there are still plenty of people who take being strong to immoral levels. These are people who are abusive not just physically, but emotionally and verbally. These are people who are sexually aggressive, who demand complete loyalty from subordinates, and cannot tolerate not being in charge of a situation. From the outside, we may see someone who is “clawing their way to the top” of a corporate ladder, but inside they’re leaving behind a trail of ruined careers and destroyed lives as they use and abuse everyone with whom they come in contact.

One might like to think that taking being strong to such horrible levels is a rare thing, but the rate of child deaths per day in the US due to abuse and neglect has risen from 3.3 in 1998 to 4.78 in 2016.When one reaches the point where one can no longer tolerate weakness around them and see that weakness as a threat to their own strength, being strong becomes an immoral position and people get hurt.

There’s nothing wrong with being strong, mind you, inside of the parameters of improving oneself. There is a lot of good one can do by overcoming personal challenges and dominating their life situation. However, there is a significant tendency as one achieves those high levels of strength to have less tolerance for perceived weakness when actually we need weakness to provide necessary balance to our lives. There is as much power in being weak as their is in being strong when one balances both in the correct proportions.

Being weak creates an opportunity for healing

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Being strong often requires that we push ourselves beyond what we think we can do. That is a positive trait in that it helps us to achieve outside our presumed limitations. However, sometimes we push too hard and put both our bodies and our minds in positions where we need to back off and give ourselves time to heal, not merely physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well.

Being intentionally weak does not come easily for those who have fought so hard to be strong their entire lives. There is this fear that if we give in even for a minute that our whole house of cards may come crashing down upon us. Over time, we become so accustomed to having to be strong that we’re not even sure we know how to turn off that button.

Nature demands balance, however, so we have a choice: either we can create those moments of weakness for ourselves, or we can have them forced upon us. Having weakness forced upon us often involves the onset of disease or injury that finally reaches a critical stage because we never took the time to deal with the matter. Heart attacks, strokes, and even some forms of cancer are the ways in which our bodies force us into a position of weakness with the express purpose of creating time for us to heal.

One of the most difficult periods of my life came six years ago when I hurt my left leg while out on a rather simple photoshoot. What seemed like a minor twisted ankle became a major health event that left me in bed, on heavy medications, and frequently unable to walk without assistance. I was miserable because I couldn’t power through this situation and be strong, my body wouldn’t allow it. I would try to go and do only to find myself in bed for the next two days.

Only when I gave in to the situation and allowed myself to be weak, allowed Kat to provide some care, stopped beating myself up mentally for not being more productive, did my body begin to get better. Not that everything’s perfect, mind you. Those injuries are apparently permanent and still flair up to remind me to take a day off occasionally. Rest. Heal. Still, had I not given myself permission to be weak and heal, the situation would have become a lot worse.

United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg may be one of the strongest people on the planet. She has overcome bias in many different forms to become one of the most respected jurists to ever sit on the bench. Yet, over the past few years, she has continually wrestled with cancer and recently, for the first time ever, missed arguments at the court in order to recuperate from surgery. As incredibly strong a person as she is, she still had to stop for a while and let herself recuperate.

One should probably note that Justice Ginsburg’s time off was carefully scheduled so as to impact her court duties as little as possible. Taking those moments of weakness doesn’t mean we don’t fulfill our most important obligations.

What we find, though, is that when we take the time necessary to heal we are more likely to come back stronger, refreshed, more resolute, and often more creative. Allowing ourselves to be weak for a period of time aids our ability to be strong in the future. To deny ourselves these opportunities is foolish. We are much better positioned when we schedule our down times rather than having them forced upon us.

Being weak provides perspective and humility

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I bristle when political opponents criticize a world leader for taking a vacation. There is no one who needs scheduled down time more than the people responsible for the safety and prosperity of their country. Only those who have been in those positions can fully understand and appreciate the immense pressure heads of state are under every hour of every day. Without those breaks in their official duties, heads of state risk becoming incapacitated mentally and emotionally.

Perhaps even more critical is that leaders who don’t step away from their capital on occasion risk losing perspective. All the polling in the world doesn’t replace actually putting oneself in the position of those they govern. That hardline dip into reality, experiencing life without the trappings of power, is what establishes the difference between compassionate and responsive governments who care about their constituents versus authoritarian regimes that care only about maintaining power.

Finding success in being strong can set up an incredible head game. There are stages of life where being strong is a matter of survival. We do what we have to do to put food on the table and keep a roof over our heads. When our strength finally takes us to the point we’re not necessarily living hand-to-mouth, our natural reaction is to want to expand that success and we push harder to make ourselves stronger. As success grows upon success, we become afraid to push the pause button for fear we might lose some of what we’ve fought so hard to accomplish.

What happens, though, in this head-strong push to succeed is that we often lose a sense of perspective and objectivity. We see the potential for improvement, either in terms of financial gain or professional independence, and we don’t fully consider the consequences of our actions, or whether the move we’re about to make is everything it claims to be.

One place I see this loss of perspective most often is among those entrepreneurial folks who work from home. These people have to be incredibly strong because they don’t have the corporate structure around them to absorb any mistakes they might make. Everything is on their back, from filing taxes to meeting industry standards to addressing safety concerns. Working from home, being one’s own boss, requires significant sustained strength to avoid failure. So, when an opportunity comes along that shows significant promise, we tend to charge after it, choosing to believe the superficial information presented rather than digging in and doing full due diligence. After all, we don’t have a whole third floor full of people to do that research for us. If we don’t make a decision firmly and quickly, the opportunity may be gone. “Be strong and reach for that brass ring” is a mantra I often hear among the self-employed.

Unfortunately, that pressure to succeed opens us to make mistakes. Many become aligned with people and ventures that do not have one’s best interest at heart. People who are focused on being strong are also, rather surprisingly, most often the most easily deceived by others who appear to be equally strong.

A frequent example is multi-level marketing opportunities such as LuLaRoe. The opportunity, if one is strong and aggressive in their sales manner, is for significant growth over a relatively short period of time. For many female entrepreneurs especially, the clothing company seemed like a sure thing and those who got in early saw tremendous returns on their efforts.

Operating a legal multi-level marketing company is difficult, though. Too often, claims are not what they appear, reality differs greatly from perception, and a legitimate business model easily slips into illegal territory. When that happens, companies experience what LuLaRoe did this past week when the Washington state Attorney General filed suit against LuLaRoe for being an illegal pyramid scheme. Should the state of Washington be successful in their suit, thousands of downline entrepreneurs stand to lose their entire retail business because their perspective did not allow them to see the inherent dangers.

Failure, especially in business, is perhaps when we are at our weakest. However, that perspective is what makes us better able to succeed with our next venture. From that position of weakness, we have the opportunity to see the business landscape more clearly, more objectively. From the position of weakness, we are more likely to discern the flaws and how to correct them. In that moment of weakness, we are more likely to see through the lies, more likely to complete due diligence, and less likely to make the same errors again.

Failure can also be incredibly humbling, especially if there is a public face to our transition from perceived strength to weakness. There is a dominant temptation as our strength leads us to some measure of success to self-elevate our social stature whether that elevation is actually deserved or not. Self-assuredness, after all, is a strong and necessary trait. One has to be confident in who they are.

Being strong doesn’t make one better than anyone else, however, and nothing drives that point home like being forced involuntarily into a moment of weakness. As our perspective changes, so, hopefully, does any inflated sense of self-importance. A good dose of humility helps us to see where our aggressiveness might have hurt or inappropriately offended others. We also are likely to realize from this position that there are limits to our abilities and places where we lose strength by insisting on doing everything ourselves. A good dose of humility helps ground us as we move forward and allows us to maintain a more realistic perspective.

Being weak allows others a chance to be strong

Old Man Talking

One of the most difficult things for strong-minded people to do is ask for help no matter how seriously they may need it. Asking for help requires relinquishing some level of control, admitting that one cannot do everything, and taking on a position of weakness at least within a specified area.

I see this issue a lot with entrepreneurial clients. On one hand, they come asking for advice and in doing so often reveal their position of weakness. Yet, they are reluctant to actually let me help them. Instead, they prefer instruction on how to do it themselves. To some degree, they hope that by maintaining a strong position they can save on start-up and operating costs. What they don’t see, however, is that in their stubbornness they’re making errors that could easily doom their new business before it ever gets off the ground. The stronger decision is to admit where one is weak and let someone else step up and address that specific area.

While one strong person can achieve a lot, multiple strong people working together can achieve tremendously more. However, many people’s strength remains hidden because those in charge never provide them the opportunity to demonstrate that strength. By admitting that we are weak, especially in specific areas of expertise, we allow others to demonstrate their strength and thereby make the entire organization stronger.

The same theory applies on a personal level. Take household chores as an example. In many homes, one person does the bulk of the work because they’re the strong person whose perception often is that if they don’t do something the task isn’t going to be completed. Those opinions are often based on a certain level of experience that supports their perspective.

When we take a step back though, and from a position of weakness let it be known we can no longer complete certain household chores, we might be surprised to find one child has a gift for organizing space and that another has the perfect mindset for accomplishing detailed cleaning. Someone in the household might be a whiz at doing laundry and might actually find the chore relaxing (yes, those people do exist) but one can never discover those traits in others when they’re determined to do everything for themselves.

Allowing someone else to develop their own strength is challenging because one ultimately has to back completely away and take the weak position in order for them to succeed. For someone who is inherently strong, this effort is a tremendous test of one’s resolve. We want to step in, fix mistakes, do things more efficiently, rather than letting someone learn and develop their own style. Yet, this is the only way any business or other effort becomes sustainable.

My mother was at her best in the kitchen. She had learned from her mother and her grandmother and had recipes memorized to the point that much of the time muscle memory took over, allowing her to do things like grade papers while preparing a fantastic dinner. She rocked at cooking.

Then, I came along and burned the poached eggs. I was seven years old at the time and had decided that, early one Saturday morning, I would fix my own breakfast rather than waiting for my parents to get up. I had watched Mother poach eggs multiple times so I thought I had the steps down pat. My error was that I had never seen her add water to the poacher. There was smoke. Mother came rushing from their bedroom. The eggs were burned. At that moment, however, she realized the need to not only teach me to cook but give me the space to develop that skill on my own.

Eventually, as arthritis made it increasingly difficult for her to handle the heavy cast iron skillet or large pans full of boiling liquid, Mom’s ability to step back and let me help became increasingly necessary. As time has passed, I now find myself in the same position as my mother, needing to step back and allow little ones the chance to develop their own cooking skills. This is how we sustain the skills necessary to take care of ourselves. The fact that so many young adults don’t have those basic skills speaks to the difficulty their parents had in exhibiting any level of weakness so their children’s skills could develop.

Giving up control isn’t easy and letting someone else take over may mean mistakes are made that we have to go back and fix. Yet, that weakness on our part is absolutely necessary for society to continue to function in an adequate manner. We must give others space to become strong on their own.

Bringing Power To Weakness

Old Man Talking

When we insist on being strong all the time we inevitably build walls around us that ultimately do us harm. We not only lose perspective but we also lose our foundation as people assume we don’t need their help, that we are weathering storms on our own just fine.

We can insist on being the strong one so long that it eventually kills us. We close ourselves off from our emotions in the name of self-preservation. We distance ourselves from others so that they can’t see the cracks in our armor. We often become secretive because we fear someone might discover that we’re not as capable as we claim.

When we embrace a position of weakness, some amazing and powerful things can happen. Honesty, transparency, and openness begin to flourish. We begin drawing people to us who are complementary rather than adversarial. As we allow our weakness to let more people into our lives we become open to people who give rather than consistently take. We no longer feel that we have to maintain a constant attitude of defensiveness. We can relax. We can smile.

When we work from this position of weakness, knowing that we cannot do everything ourselves, admitting there are things we don’t know, we allow people to grow and evolve and learn along with us. The journey on which we travel begins to feel less like a solitary trek through the wilderness and more like a joyful adventure with friends.

There is power in numbers and the larger the numbers the greater the power but to achieve the numbers means we cannot be the strong one all the time. We have to embrace our weakness and in so doing we turn that weakness into power, creating an advantage that the solitary person cannot achieve no matter how strong they are.

Weakness also allows us to feel pain, to deal with sadness and grief effectively rather than trying to power through everything. Here, too, there is power as we allow ourselves to be embraced by those who truly care, hugged by those whose only desire is to hold us up. When we deal with our emotions honestly rather than stuffing them until “a better time,” we end up stronger because we don’t make that journey alone We come out the other side with a network of support and caring that lifts us up and provides us with a safe place to fall apart.

For all the memes littering the Internet telling us to be strong and courageous and bold and brave, we still need space to let ourselves be weak and cautious and reluctant and vulnerable. Yes, there are times when circumstances dictate that we push forward and power through, but on the backside of all those events are moments when we need to back off, reflect, gain perspective, and let someone else lead the charge forward.

Knowing how to be weak is not a negative character trait. Rather, it is the ability to embrace our weakness that makes us strong. In our weakness, we build a foundation of honesty, integrity, and openness. There is success, love, peacefulness, and happiness found in the balance of strength with weakness. We are never complete without both.


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