Toughness Training: Four Questions

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’?

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Two boo’s for ‘living in order to work’

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Call me puzzled. I can’t help but recall a wealthy man I used to tutor while I was living in New York City. He was an heir to a famous American dynasty and was doubtless so wealthy that none of his grandchildren would ever need to work. Despite this, he worked very long hours, founding and co-founding companies, some of which would be very familiar to you. Why would someone who doesn’t have to work long, hunger to work–and to do scarcely anything else?

I’ve only begun reading Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, which was originally published in 1899. On the opening pages, Veblen makes plain that barbarian cultures initiated a class distinction between laborers and elites (who were engaged, variously, in politics, warfare, religion, and sport). Until very recently in human history, it simply appeared self-evident that, provided that an economic order had advanced to the point at which not everyone needed to work (there could be slaves, women, and a class of male laborers, say), leisure was regarded as obviously preferable to working, that one worked (if one did, if one had to) for the sake of leisure, and that whatever we mean by ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ or ‘significance’ must needs be sought in non-work. Furthermore, leisure was the honorable, dignified, laudatory term and the second term–whatever is not leisure, i.e., work–would be derived from the leisure concept.

It is therefore surprising (a) that the wealthy, early 50-something man I used to tutor should choose to spend most of his life working and (b) that someone who is out of work would, even if financially secure, find his life boring because he is not working. What is going on? It is a question I cannot yet answer.

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Openness, wonder, and joy

Philosophy is not for those who presume to know all there is to know. Nor is it for those who, being bourgeois, take life to be wholly self-explanatory. ‘The commonplace mind,’ writes Josef Pieper in ‘The Philosophical Act,’ ‘rendered deaf-mute, finds everything self-explanatory’ to the point at which ‘”wonder” is no longer there.’ Now that must be a great loss unknown to the self-professedly knowledgeable, such a magnificent and terrible loss to the one blanketing all reality in the endless commonplace. What unmarked, unremarked upon despondency!

There is only wonder, so we shall learn, once one is brought to doubt whether he knows something at all. But then how is someone brought to such a doubt, and what disposition brings one to wonder’s doorstep?

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Letting others be: A fictitious admonition

No words must needs be addressed to him if what he is doing does not accord with what I think he would be better off doing. Let him be. That there may be other ways of doing something, some incontrovertibly or demonstrably better than this one he prefers or seems to anyway: what of it, man? Am I to concern myself each passing day with the details of this man’s affairs by sticking in a finger–a pointer, a probe, a dull knife? Must my tongue be fastened to his business or to hers? Come now: let it pass.

Or stay. Turn. Turn around. What urges my this way when I say what I do or, if I don’t, seethe in it all or if I wait until the pot falls and then tighten my heart in frisson, in torqued satisfaction? Shall I have a deep look–at myself, at this ugliness?–for ugliness it is. Looking, looking closely, if I dare, I see: self-righteousness…

With this, I cannot let myself be. No more nonsense now. All this time lost exhorting, lost chastening, spent correcting others! No letting be for an instant! All this stupid incorrigibility! The arrogance, the futile ignorant arrogance! What a roundabout!

Shocked? Horrified? Revolted–with myself? A good entry point from which to investigate myself: only, careful, unincriminatingly.

Kaos Pilots: A Comprehensive View (Part 1)

Kaos Pilots is a fairly unique school in that its students are taught by a wide array of guest lecturers who discuss a vast array of subjects. The latter include courses in business strategy, process consulting, and appreciative inquiry as well as workshops on personal development and theories of narrative–just to name a few. Over its 20 year history, the school has not had an overarching vision of what the school is about (its telos) nor has it had a curriculum in the old-fashioned sense of a relatively unchanging course of study the primary aim of which is for each student to acquire a specific body of knowledge.

Over the past three years, one of the remarks I have heard from students is something that has also struck me: it is that they can have a hard time coming up with a comprehensive view of how all the diverse items they have learned over the three years can be fit together in one picture. The project concerned with achieving a synoptic view is, without question, a philosophical one.

In the past two posts, I have described what could provide Kaos Pilots with greater cohesiveness and unity: an explicit emphasis on the cultivation of character as well as a clear commitment to the articulation and specification of the statement, ‘I want to make a difference.’ I believe the third element would be to supply the school with some philosophical methods for bringing seemingly disparate phenomena into a single whole.

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