Since time immemorial humankind has bent its knee to strength, or at least a certain vague notion of it. Incalculable amounts of effort and toil have been expended by countless individuals, armies, kingdoms, governments and corporations in the pursuit of this amorphous idea of Strength. Actually, power is the end result they all sought, but Strength was glorified because it was seen as the ultimate prerequisite for power.
We live in a world that has always valued Strength above all other qualities. So much so that it has been deified and worshiped (hence I capitalize it to emphasize this cultural deification). In Greek mythology, the Titans were the gods who ruled before the Olympians (Zeus, Poseidon, etc.), and Cratus was the Titan of Strength. In fact, in words that reference social power like aristocracy and theocracy, the –-cracy part comes from the name Cratus which means “strength” or “power,” so the deification of strength is embedded even in our language.
Darwin, perhaps not intentionally but by default, cemented the image and reputation of Strength as the most godlike of qualities. What he actually emphasized most was adaptability, not brute strength. Ergo, in the famous phrase “survival of the fittest,” what he was referring to as the “fittest” were not the strongest physically, but the most adaptable to shifting conditions of their environment (which takes intelligence, keen perception and creativity, not might). But as most big ideas throughout history it was misunderstood and spread in a misconstrued way.
Such misconstructions are no surprise since our thinking about what Strength even is in the first place tends to be muddled. Is it sheer, physical strength? Is it mental toughness? Is it cutthroat competitiveness? Usually, it’s a confused mix of all of the above and more.
For years now, I have pondered and thought deeply on the idea of Strength – what it is and is not, what it’s perceived as, and how it really should be understood. And my conclusion is this: most people don’t know what true strength is and wouldn’t recognize it if it beat them over the head, so to speak. They’re too preoccupied seeking and paying homage to the fake kind of strength that seeks to almost literally beat them over the head.
In the Japanase manga series Vagabond – based on the life and exploits of Miyamoto Musashi, who is widely considered one of the greatest swordsman to have ever lived – a young Musashi, intoxicated with his own skills and eager to prove he is the strongest there is – roams the land disemboweling people and leaving a trail of bodies wherever he goes. It isn’t until he meets an enigmatic old monk, who tells Musashi flat out that he has no idea what true strength is, that Musashi’s real education begins.
Of course, Musashi was a man, and throughout history men in particular have always had the most confused and tortured relationships with the concept of Strength. Since boyhood we are inculcated to fear, worship and aspire to a certain model of Strength as typified by images of force and aggression or what you might call Type A behavior. Many of us then spend our adult years strutting around puffing out our chest like stuffed roosters. Enough has already been written about this particular point so I won’t belabor it here. Rather, what I’m going to do, over the course of two postings, is to introduce an alternative vision of strength (or at least as much as possible within just a couple of short essays).
I constantly see men (and sometimes women) who seem to feel the need to flaunt their supposed Strength. What they’re really flaunting is their social status, authority and/or wealth, which they may indeed have, not Strength, which they do not have. (For if they did they would not feel the need to flaunt anything, as flaunting itself is a sign of weakness and insecurity). The men around them then typically fall into two categories: those who, like rams on a hillside, butt heads with them in an attempt to assert their own imaginably superior power and dominance, or those who resign to their status as Beta males and essentially do the Alpha males’ bidding. In my case, I do neither. I am twice the man they are and, like an adult watching children play, feel no need to compete with them on those terms.
Many men, especially young ones, who watch on the sidelines of these power struggles but are marginalized and unable to participate for various reasons often become seduced by what is perceived as a shortcut method of demonstrating strength: violence.
Others look for more socially acceptable but equally visible and superficial ways to exhibit their strength. They might boast that they can hold down more liquor than anyone else, for instance. Or take bodybuilding, which is a legitimate sport and fitness activity, but nowadays many men are so driven by the subconscious need to look and appear as big (and hence strong) as possible that they become unhealthily addicted to it and spend virtually all their time, energy and money in the insatiable quest to become bigger and bigger. I should know because for a few years I lived in that world and had that same addiction. No, I never looked
like those models on the cover of Men’s Health, but I came pretty close. I became obsessed with getting at least as “big” as my own genetic potential would allow. But did it make me stronger in the sense of True Strength? Only in the most superficial of ways, maybe. It hardened my self-discipline, but there are other ways to cultivate discipline without torturing your body to the breaking point.
The point to these and numerous other examples I haven’t even mentioned is that people (men AND women) are so desperate for ways to look and appear strong that they will devote all their energies in the pursuit of just appearing strong when they could be using that same energy in the cultivation of True Strength.
So what exactly, then, is this thing I am calling “True Strength”?
Now that I’ve spent this post talking about what strength is not, on the next post I’ll talk about what it is.