What Books Teach Me about Myself and My Sport – A Lesson in Willpower
The books I typically enjoy reading have a few things in common: the hero, generally, is female; she arises from grim circumstances, and, in the process of overcoming her circumstances, she is forced to make tough decisions.In addition to these basic plot premises, a basic quality is found among the characters I enjoy reading about – they are always strong-willed. They fight, often to their detriment, for what they believe is right. They fight through war, loss, torture. They battle their enemies and they frequently battle themselves. None of these characters are perfect, and in fighting, they all find ways to overcome their inner demons. They are determined to succeed or to die trying.
The reason that I enjoy reading these books is simple: I can easily identify with the main character. I am not saying that I face tough circumstances in the fight against evil and the fate of the entire world rests on my shoulders. Rather, I am saying that these stories allow me to place myself in the shoes of the character and contemplate how I would act in the given circumstances.
Now, it is impossible to actually guess how I would react in these circumstances. I have no idea how I would react if someone held a gun to my head. I have no idea how I would respond if I saw my parents killed before me. I have no idea how I would act if the world I knew ended tomorrow.
I like to think that I would fight for what is good, what is right, but there is no way to determine the kind of character I would have in circumstances that generally do not exist in our society. I have never had to fight with all my will for something. The society in which we live generally minimizes the situations which would give the opportunity to really test what we are made of; few of us get to see if we would choose fight or flight when the time gets tough.
I am not saying that this really a bad thing; it is a good thing that we don’t have to fight for survival every day of our lives. It shows that we have evolved as a society.
However, in that evolution, we have removed nearly every test of true willpower. For most of us, our willpower extends to not eating that cookie we really want and for most of us, the hardest decision we make on any given day is whether or not to give that homeless man some spare change – and frequently, for most of us, it is not even something we struggle with. We either do or we don’t. It is usually based on convenience for us – do I have change in my pocket? Why yes, so here, have my pocket change. Or nope, I only have cards on me, “Sorry.” We never even give it a second thought.
In removing nearly all instances where we need to make difficult decisions – few which are life or death – we have removed our animalistic intuition; or rather, we have removed the need to fight basic animal intuition.
In the face of danger, I can almost guarantee that nearly every person’s first instinct is self-preservation. However, the true test of character is one where a person is presented with a situation where they can either choose self-preservation – or they can choose to fight for what is right, even at a detriment to themselves.
In removing the need for our will, I am afraid that we have also removed the need to choose between self-preservation and selflessness, and thus, have removed ourselves from being in touch with our animalistic side. The lack of necessity for this side, or willpower has blurred the lines between self-preservation and selflessness – to the point that it is almost illogical to look for a distinction between them.
Take child-rearing, for example. Raising children is considered one of the most selfless acts there is. However, why is it in our nature to do it? Because it would preserve our genes, to be passed onto future generations – a form of self-preservation. Few of us our ever asked to make true sacrifices for our children. Sure, you don’t get to drink and play with your friends as often. Most of your money, that you work hard (or not hard) for is spent on them; but how many of us are asked to make the ultimate sacrifice for our children? Few. Very, very few.
I see a couple of trends that have formed because we, as as people who live in a society, no longer make tough decisions on a regular basis. Most of us are bored. We are listless. We are unhappy. We are unchallenged. Yes, we are free, as we happen to be lucky enough to live in a society that allows us to be; but what does freedom truly mean if we are not exercising our will?
It does not mean a whole lot.
Yes, we vote for our political leaders. Yes, we follow campaigns and many of us feel passionate about certain ideals and values. It tastes a little sour that we can have political debates in well-lit rooms with four course meals regarding what does or does not qualify as a right when there are people being slaughtered on continents not so far away from us; there are women being raped day and night; children being handed guns and demanded to murder.
And most of the time, these thoughts don’t even cross our minds. In losing the necessity to develop strong wills, we have also lost our compassion and our connection to our fellow humans. We are selfish.
So, what do they books with strong-willed characters teach us teach me? They teach me, that no matter my circumstances – even if my circumstances do not involve firing guns and protecting the world – I need to be exercising my will-power.
Exercising my will brings me in touch with my animalistic side; I learn to feel the fury of being entirely human and I learn how to control it. And this animalistic rage – it connects me to my fellow human. It teaches me compassion and empathy. We are all biological machines. We are made of the same basic elements.
I am not disillusioned enough to think that I will ever be important enough to have to make extremely difficult decisions. It is unlikely that I will have to sacrifice my life for another human. I will probably never have to fight in a bar, let alone in a war. However, I feel that practicing my will is still important.
How do I, in my dull, listless life, practice willpower?
I force myself to take the difficult routes.
While they don’t appear to be big challenges to most people who look in, they are hurdles that I face and choose to face – even though they could be easily avoided.
I chose to major in a field that I have very little natural inclination toward. My mother always thought I would go to art school and I surprised both of my parents when I announced that I wanted to major in Physics. Yes, I have an interest in Science. However, I believe that choosing my major had more to do with proving to myself that I could do it than it had to do with anything else.
Also, in college, I chose to join a sorority. For a lot of people, this is just silly. However, for a person with severe social anxiety, this is an incredibly daunting task. I had to push myself out of my shell, my comfort zone every, single day. I had to will myself to be involved with my fellow humans. It was good for me.
Last, but not least, testing my will is probably the true reason why I lift.
As masochistic as it may seem, I like to feel the burden of the weight on my back. Even though it is a self-imposed burden, for me, I feel as though it connects me to the world. Forces me into reality and out of my comfort zone. I could easily choose to avoid the gym – I would probably be in less pain all the time; I certainly would be less tired. My life would be easier. But I will myself to go to the gym; I will myself to lift the heaviest weights I can. Because it is good for me. It is good for me to test my will; to see where my limits stand. In forces the idea into my little world that I, after all, am human and with my humanity comes mortality. It is good for me because it forces me to feel pain; to feel what it is like to battle something – even if that something is just a barbell.
It is good for me because it connects me to my animalistic side and it teaches me how to control the rage. The more I lift, the more I am forced from my bubble and the more enraged I become with the injustices of the world. The more I lift, the more I feel compassion for my fellow person.
I lift to connect me; to ground me.
I lift to feel free.
And who knows, maybe all this exercising of willpower will some day will make it easier for me to choose correctly when faced with a touch decision. Maybe it won’t. Only time will tell.
(I originally posted this article on May 24, 2012)