I saw a film about – among other things – steroid usage in sports in America, and it was surprisingly engaging. Bigger Stronger Faster. Much depth. There was one man who was trying to become a star wrestler, he’d had a lot of knockbacks, but he was determined; he knew he was destined for greatness and had so much to give.
He was probably right, but what he actually has to give may not be what he thinks he has to give. And his true talents – if he’s anything like me – they might align not with his desires, but with his fears and insecurities. He’s loving and dedicated. These are admirable qualities. What he really has to give is probably more tender and real than his chosen career path accommodates for. But I don’t mean to just project my baggage, instead it made me introspective. Not knowing what life is like for him, but knowing what it’s like for me… For me, my true talents do align with my insecurities. It’s always been an uncomfortable reality: you know you’re on to something when it cuts close to the bone. You mightn’t yet know what that means, it might mean you should leave it alone and keep it secret, or it might mean you need to investigate. Investigating my fears and insecurities has been key to learning what I have to offer, especially working in a fat-phobic modern fitness industry. The secrets to my strengths are hidden within my weaknesses.
This is not academic or theoretical. It is surprisingly practical. Immediate.
I can’t qualify it. But somehow I decided or realised that it was more important to me, to be okay with myself, than it was to achieve. Because achievement-based self-worth isn’t self-worth. And in the end, I want to feel good about myself. Training – sometimes it’s a panacea. It improves some things but not others. In some ways it improves self-image, in some ways it erodes.
If you don’t have contempt for everyone else in your life, if you actually love them and value their uniqueness surely you’ll see it’s not a hierarchy? And maybe greatness can be small, and uniqueness holds the key? And then logic dictates there’s nothing wrong with being just like everyone else, and also that there is no such thing as ‘everyone else’. Because we are all unique snowflakes, like it or not. And that uniqueness that you perceive and value in others, that character that you love, that your friends possess, we each possess our own and it’s not achievement based. That’s why it’s called character.
And it seems to me – it’s made of the parts of you that you cannot change.
But the pursuit of greatness? I like to think in terms of community more than stardom. There’s something immediate about community, it doesn’t require massive blind leaps, and there’s usually something you can do. And if you’re striving for greatness, isn’t it still the accumulation of thousands of little steps?
When you know, deep down, that you have something more to offer, you don’t need to walk the scripted paths, you don’t need to play the parts we are told to play. If you really do have something in your soul to give, odds are it won’t fit neatly into an existing paradigm. What have you struggled with? Therein lies the key to your strength. It’s not in your dreams and desires, but in your struggles. It won’t be what you expect.
If you think on it, the way to develop strength is through resistance. It’s not the easy, pleasant things that develop your strength or that build character. The gym analogy is this: the right degree of resistance you will recover from, it will stimulate you to grow stronger. Insufficient resistance will not make you strong, and excessive resistance will burn you out or hurt you. The stimulus must be appropriate. Struggle builds strength, but usually not in the ways you expect. Your struggles, what have they forced you to practice? Because we develop what we practice – and what you are practiced at, that is what you become good at, strong at.
But when you’re still on the path, when you’re still struggling, it can be hard to perceive your situation clearly. Sometimes you need space and time, things need to have been resolved before you can look back upon them and perceive them clearly. Some things cannot be rushed.
I think it’s not success and triumph that unites the soul of humanity, so much as it’s what you struggle with that connects you to your humanity. Our humanity. That is the seat of your compassion, and it’s compassion that connects our hearts. You know, even across space and time.
So, what if it’s not greatness we have to offer, but vulnerability? That’s what we cherish. That’s what touches our hearts.
Superheroes are very popular, inspiring, the muscular arms, the feats of courage, and we are taught that they are the ones we must emulate, but what makes them relatable are their vulnerabilities. Achilles had his famous heel. They all have them, in one way or another. The love they bear for the ones closest to them. What really connects us to them are not their powers, but their fears. And they’re Superheroes, so they act in spite of their fears, when they are in fact, most afraid and when they experience doubt or a crisis of consciousness, and of course when their cherished ones need them the most.
What really connects us then?
The fear of mediocrity, the fear of being ordinary rather than extraordinary, why are we are afraid of being normal? What’s so bad about being normal, together? What connects us is not the superhuman, it is the human. You don’t need to change the world to prove that you’re special, that you possess worth, that you have meaning. You’re already special. The proof of this lies in your very existence. Your vulnerability, self-doubt, and yearning are evidence of this.
Perfection is an illusion. There is no such thing as perfection of the physique, it’s all contrived. We made it up. It’s an aesthetic that we decided to value. Humans are infinitely soft, squishy, vulnerable and flawed – even the most muscular among us, the best fighters and athletes, and every one of us can be beaten by someone bigger, stronger or faster, and maybe that’s why we care about each other? Maybe that vulnerability is what makes us protective, inspires us to strive?
You are connected, through your heart, to all things. Your desire to do something more, to be something more, it comes from the same place, from the same connections. We are taught that the things that make us uncomfortable, the things that remind us of our vulnerability, our mortality, that these things are weaknesses, but they do instead contain insights into the nature of our true strengths.
In all this, there is no place for body shame.
So if you don’t need to be better than anyone else, why strive? If we’re all the same, or we’re all unique and hierarchy is an illusion, why work hard? If this is a genuine question for you, take a step back. What is it that you value? Do you enjoy your training – if so, why? If not, why? What is it that is meaningful for you, and what do you want to achieve? What will your achievement contribute, and in the end, will it be worth it? I don’t mean to imply that the answer is no, I don’t mean to derail your ambition or imply that you’re wasting your efforts. Instead I’m questioning your motivation. If it really is important to you, there’ll be a reason, and odds are it’ll be a good one. The end goal is going to be about more than a flat stomach. What are you really working towards?
The irony is this – if it’s for your health, in the end, fuck results. Health is not a result, it may be a state, and there’s a process. It’s one of those funny things that people argue over, and we can’t quite come to an agreement about what health actually is. But a friend observed the other day – sporting goals and health goals often are not aligned. Compete if you like to compete. But not all training needs to be about crushing it, about dominating the opposition, about achieving any damn thing. Do not delude yourself, if you can help it. Training need not be a compensation for insecurity, it can just be what it is. It need not be punishing, and all the athleticism you can muster at age twenty may not have any influence on your health by the time you reach fifty.
Instead, just do what’s fun. It absolutely will be good for you, if it’s fun. And it’s more fun than not doing what’s fun.