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March 25th, 2019
The simplest reason is that there’s nothing else to cherish. Life is a challenge, and this applies to all parts, not just the difficult or unpleasant parts. For many it’s an incredible challenge to simply sit and enjoy a moment. This simplest of challenges is one that requires constant practice, otherwise, our ability atrophies and worry, anxiety and restlessness encroach upon us. To cherish the challenge is in effect to turn all in life that seeks to undo you and get the best of you on it’s head.
I bet you can’t do it.
This accusation could easily be at the heart of our existence. And yet, is there a more provocative and motivating accusation? How many times have we done something, and when asked why, we report: they said I couldn’t do it, so I did.
This is the lineage of the word ‘challenge’. It comes from the Latin ‘calumnia’ via French which means to make false and defamatory statements about someone. This etymological heritage is best summed up in the above challenge: bet you can’t do it.
For some this kind of underdog mentality comes easily, riles them up in aggressively productive ways. For others who are all too willing to defer, submit and admit lack of ability, it would be immensely useful to explore how this kind of reaction to a challenge exists within others. We need only make the challenge more acute to bring out the underdog in a demure person.
This is where an activity like martial arts can help. A person who has never felt this desperation to act will find it quickly when physically pinned and stressed to the point where alarms of survival start to ring in one’s psyche. Regardless of how someone find this bulldog spirit within them, it’s a necessary gear to have ready to employ. Not only does it help us meet the challenge, it can enable us to enjoy and even cherish the challenge.
The swaggering spirit of smiling at a challenge can, of course, lapse into hubris - the folly of heroes in the Greek literary tradition. But while this attribute was seen as a mistake, it can – if reframed be seen as a mechanism for self-regulation that creates a higher level of challenge.
For example early on in the Homeric epic The Odyssey, we have Odysseus held captive by Polyphemus, a Cyclops who tends a flock of sheep which he eats and who also happens to be a son of the god Poseidon. Odysseus, popularly known as a clever and cunning hero, easily outsmarts Polyphemus and escapes. It’s at this moment that high school English teachers will label Odysseus’ next action as a mistake of hubris. As Odysseus is sailing away, he yells at Polyphemus and tells the Cyclops his real name as a way of affixing an egotistical signature to his clever success. Polyphemus, in turn, calls upon his father Poseidon to make Odysseus’ life difficult. And indeed Poseidon does.
Our modern focus on luxury and comfort is ill-equipped to see what is actually happening in this exchange. The modern eye sees this move as Odysseus’ mistake, and implicitly engages in the time-old game of – if only he hadn’t done that… he would have had an easier time. But times are slowly changing and we are beginning to recognize the inherent good in difficulty. Whether this be in biology via research about the stress of exercise and fasting on the body, or in pop culture, such as in the popular show Billions where a character recently says “The very difficulty of it is why you must.”
Everywhere, we are finding instances where the harder road is ultimately the better road.
We can reframe Odysseus’ hubris as a self-regulating mechanism that snaps reality into a new level. Like with a videogame, success on one level grants one entry to the next level which is more difficult, requiring not just the skills of the previous level, but new ones that will be acquired in the midst of new challenge.
Odysseus may not be consciously making his life more difficult, but we can see his egoism or hubris as a trait that arises when life has become too easy. This model of ineptitude growing into bloated ability and then popping even maps onto the boom-bust cycles that we can see in economics, or the feast and fast mechanisms that have arisen in the body throughout evolutionary history. The inherent assumption of mapping over these domains is that the result is stronger than it was before the cycle, which is not necessarily always true, just as hubris and ego can drive a person off a metaphorical cliff from which they never recover. One of the points buried within the Odyssey is that if a person can survive such metaphorical falls and rise once more, they will be far better equipped than if they had never risen and fallen from such egoist heights.
The rest of the epic is perhaps the primordial example of the underdog spirit. Odysseus grinds through challenge after challenge, and though he finally enters his kingdom looking like a poor and decrepit beggar, he is, at that point stronger and better equipped than he ever was as a magnificent war hero thanks solely to his willingness to entertain the dangerous spirit of hubris within himself.
Nietzsche once wrote something to this effect: Be careful in casting our your demons, lest they be the best part of you. Through this lens we can identify Odysseus’ demon as hubris, which ultimately did him a great service by channeling his life down a more difficult corridor. He is, ultimately, willing to flirt with the dangerous parts of the human psyche in order to discover some greater good.
Whether it be technology or even something as basic as emotions, the great mistake is to label something once as good or bad and fail to see the gateways that exist in the border between these two concepts. It’s easy to elucidate this fact with something as simple as a knife: holding the wrong end is bad, but holding it correctly makes it useful and good. This sounds like a simple and dumb mistake, but the point may in fact radiate to all that we propound to be good or bad, and the real trick is to at least wonder what good could be rendered from something that looks wholly bad, and what bad might lurk in the heavenly situations we create and come across.
The one who can cherish the challenge can flip flop perspectives of good and bad to one’s own benefit and growth, and in so doing it’s possible to find the satisfying grist inherent in all the problems of life, let alone finding solutions to those problems.
As with so many things, this solely requires a shift in perspective and nothing else.
But, I bet you can’t you can’t do it.
This episode references Episode 42: Level-Up
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