Suppose someone were to ask you, ‘Are you tough?,’ with the question situated in our historical context. He would not be asking whether you can fight someone to the death, beat someone up, endure weeks of physical torture, or climb Everest. The context would make it clear that he is asking you about a physical-mental nexus of toughness suited for our time and our life.
He might, then, have (at least) four different senses of toughness in mind:
1.) When it comes to assignments or activities, are you someone who can take on incrementally harder and harder tasks (here I’m thinking of the Labors of Hercules) without breaking or feeling ‘overwhelmed’?
Too often we hear of people being ‘overwhelmed,’ ‘stressed out,’ and ultimately ‘burnt out.’ These are, in key part, questions of quantity. What strikes me, though, is how adamantine individuals relish performing harder and harder tasks without feeling these to be a burden. One thinks of any training regimen in which one begins as a weakling, being unable to perform a task, but soon is able to do so with ease, and then moves onto the next, more formidable challenge. The strong-minded and tough like to say: ‘Come, bring on the harder. Is that all you’ve got? I’m ready for something that will push and possibly break me.’
The interesting implication is that toughness training could, at least for some, be an antidote to being overwhelmed.
2.) When it comes to our historical moment which I have elsewhere called ‘unsettled time,’ are you able to face up to reality, or will you continue to overlook or deny what is occurring?
Some say that the collapse of civilization is imminent; others say that it has, behind our backs so to say, already occurred. Most reasonable people agree that we cannot expect our collective way of life to go on. If we acknowledge this truly and fully, what does it mean for how–on an everyday basis–we are to live? The tough person would face up to reality by observing that in radical respects he will have to change his life. Minimally, given the veracity of the post-economic growth thesis, this would involve living more simply.
3.) When it comes to sustaining your life (i.e., being able to meet your material needs day after day), are you able to fend for yourself, or must you rely upon what Kant would call ‘guardians’: assistance from the state, parents, friends, strangers, and the like?
There comes a time in intellectual and moral maturity in the developed world when one has the wherewithal, the resourcefulness, and the wits to scrabble and cobble and do what is necessary to get by. Or one doesn’t. What separates the tough from the soft, in this sense, is just that the tough can offer something of value to others, has a certain dignity and pride, and can effectively figure out what he has to do, in most circumstances, to see to himself and to those who are dependent upon him. This is what I mean when I say, in this sense, that the tough person can ‘fend for himself.’
4.) When it comes to The Big Thing, do you have what it takes to set off pursuing and to continue to pursue this that is higher?
This question is intended to rule out those full of initial exuberance, the starry-eyed, and the naifs. Stirred and awakened and called by The Big Thing, the tough person has ‘the intuition’ that he has enough to get started and can, if push comes to shove, have enough to see him through to the end. The weak give up, give in, fold too soon.
What would fill out this account further would be a taxonomy of softness. Would it be comprised of
- Holding back
- Giving in, giving up
- Backing down
Then there would need to be greater consideration given to discernment or phronesis.
- Ways of discerning when it is too hard period or too hard for me at this stage; hence, it would be prudent to let off.
- Ways of discerning when it cannot be done, hence is foolhardy to continue thinking about or pursuing.
- Ways of discerning when the thing is not worth it or no longer worth it.