Time to Get Tougher Ourselves

The following character is not so easy to describe in a single word, yet one can get good at spotting him. He is strong, tough, courageous, brave, properly proud, free-spirited, lighthearted, dispassionate, hearty, lively, enlivened, thumatic, vibrant, bursting with life, ‘crazy,’ wild, bloodthirsty, full-throated and big-hearted, ruthlessly committed to discovering the truth, occasionally enraged or outrageous, a lover of pain for the sake of the Good, quiet in such a unique way of ‘being quiet,’ full of bold laughter not least when it comes to himself and his own faults, a risk-taker based on reason, someone who lusts to stake himself to what is grand, a maker of challenges beyond all imagination, a generous spirit, a figure of exhilaration not flowing from imprudent acts, a being antipathetic to creaturely comforts, a rollicky yet self-controlled person, preternaturally cheerful especially amid tension and extra pressure.

The tough person is not at all meek or soft but all stoutness, openness, intense flexibility, fierce agility. What made him so? Hard to say. Surely at least: adversity but, more notably, his facing up to adversity. But surely not that exactly either. Facing up to it by thinking hard about it and by adapting in ways that overcome that particular kind of adversity. Overcome, though, not by forcing his way through like a dumb bulldozer but by making that form of adversity either obsolete or under his control.  Increasing pressures withstood. Aching surprises responded to with alertness and agility, with a warm tranquility. Muscular flexibility. Mental power akin to casuistry. Thinking slowly, very slowly, and acting surely and quickly like a lightning bolt.

In virtually every philosophical tradition, one finds a single expression that is so simple as to be incomprehensible. An early Daoist work could just as well be a Spartan exhortation or a Stoical treatise: ‘The sage acts upon things and is not acted upon by them.’ The person who has become tough has figured out how, in most every situation, to act upon without being acted upon, to respond rather than react, to expand rather than contract, to face up to in lieu of shrinking away from, to think through rather than going endlessly round in circles.

You think: heroism. Yes, but not merely physical courage is at the heart of this character but, in his blood and in our time, moral and intellectual courage. The transmogrification of the warrior into the philosopher without the latter losing the attributes of the former. Ferocity into wisdom, cultivated by wisdom.

What made him tough? Undoubtedly, facing enough episodes of adversity. But also actively seeking out more and more tests of courage. What is it he tends to shrink from, avoid, block out? Where does he contract, turn away, give in, fold, give up? He has learned to observe this shrinking and has described it truthfully, unstintingly: lowly, pathetic, disgusting, shameful, ugly. Yet he does not stop with that thought. One thought further he goes: one more opportunity for me to buck up and act by facing up to pain while turning my eyes to the Good. For the Good is above pain: this is what Plato taught me. Shall I listen again and learn and thus become more than myself?

Our time is unsettled. He had better learn toughness; he knows this because he does not know what could be coming for us. Nor do we.

Time for us–no time to waste–to follow his lead, becoming tougher and tougher ourselves.

Further Reading

All of Nietzsche.