Contests, Modes of Toughness, and the Spirit of Our Times

Not everything in life is a contest but surely some things are. In a contest, I struggle, I risk something, I stake myself. I can avoid contests but only at the cost of avoiding becoming a more excellent human being.

I doubt whether we can continue to avoid the contests we face in the coming years. Some contests will be easy while others will be hard.

Consider the hard contests in life. What I have in previous posts been calling ‘toughness’ would be a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for excelling in a hard contest.

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A good human life flows according to nature

The following occurred to one conversation partner and me yesterday morning. After our philosophical conversation, I ate lunch, then went for a climb, only to be brought home by the early afternoon desert rain.


A good human life flows according to basic categories (or modes) of human experience: movement, rest, thinking, conversing, having sex, eating, working, and so on. Let us suppose that whatever ‘table’ of modes we come up with is exhaustive of all modes of human activity.

What typically occurs to disrupt the flow of human activity is that one mode becomes distended, either encroaching upon another (as , say, movement does in the case of rest), overextending itself into other modes (as, say, work does under the conditions of modern capitalism), or losing its one-pointedness (as, say, mindless sex does in the case of eros). Too often, individuals do too much of one thing in a single day (binge eating, spending, becoming specialists) or cannot focus gently on the activity at hand.

Yet for a good human life which is led according to nature, one mode would need to be ‘unto itself’ (i.e., given its time and its due) as well as ‘in measure’ (i.e., not lasting beyond its proper duration). One can let such a life flow only if

1. each mode is touched by gracefulness (eating with grace, conversing with grace, moving one’s body with style, etc.);

2. the transitions from one mode to another are made in the moments just before ‘tiredness’ settles in (e.g., just before hunger arises, one learns to cook food and eat slowly, mindfully, lovingly; just before emailing makes one irritable, one goes for a leisurely walk);

3. the next mode serves as a counterpose to the one prior (e.g., making love follows eating well, clear thinking follows meditative stillness, climbing rocks gracefully follows conversing well, etc.).

Thus when I do X, I only do X and, at the right time, X passes organically onto Y. So goes a day, a year, a life.