I first tried to climb the black route on lane one at the climbing gym some time ago. After weeks of alternately attempting and staring at the tricky holds in dismay, I climbed it. The next day, I tackled the purple route, the one with the big sloping handholds. I got higher than I ever have, fell, and then climbed one hold higher. While I had developed my strength since that first attempt, I have also become more deliberate and more precise. In climbing, as in much of our lives, this makes a difference.
Feeling stronger has me thinking about what strength means and where I have found it over time. As a friend once pointed out, I have written about human fragility and vulnerability but I have not focused nearly as much on strength and resilience. I think there are good reasons for this, but that was then. Now is a different time.
I would like to talk here about physical strength in the sense that it takes mental strength to grow physically stronger. I’m reading The Rock Warrior’s Way by Arno Ilgner right now and much of what I’m reading aligns beautifully with my experiences learning meditation. The mind has a remarkable influence on the body and, as Eastern philosophy suggests, there may not be any separation between the two. When I’m feeling happy and positive, the world looks prettier. So too, my body moves more easily. Conversely, when my shoulders are cramped from hunching over a desk and my mind is already in a rut because my shoulders are sore, my body responds unhappily when I ask it to move and my mind continues to complain.
But there is more to strength than the link between mind and body. There is, for example, the sensation of soaring when the two work in concert.
Strength is the feeling that whatever comes next is within my grasp. It is reachable. It is possible.
Strength is the feeling of trust in myself and courage in the face of difficult choices. Strength is the commitment to this thing right here right now rather than acquiescence, resignation, or tacit agreement.
Strength is the ability to challenge oneself and to ask, as I learned in a Coursera course during Singapore’s circuit breaker, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”. Listening to the answer to that question is far more frightening than asking it, but crucial to ask if we are to learn who we are and what we are capable of.
A long time ago, I knew a group of people who measured worth, achievement, and level of respect due someone based on their estimate of the person’s 5k run time. It didn’t matter if you were better than them in any other thing; you couldn’t run a 5k as well as they could. To these young men, speed was the form of strength.
I have been running for about ten years now and I, too, measured my running in terms of speed. A good day was a fast run and a bad day was characterised by a slow run, regardless of how much I might have enjoyed it. Taking time off running, whether for injury or travel or anything else, was sapping the physical strength that defined my understanding of how strong I was or could be. Slowing down, be it physically or mentally, was a sign of weakness, despite how much I might have needed it.
I am older now, older, wiser, and a bit more beaten around by the world than I was back then. I took seven weeks off of running and recently started again, very slowly. But I breathed the air, felt the heat from the sun, and experienced the expansiveness of my heart that comes from being along the water and moving my body in the company of strangers doing the same. Would I have noticed this in the way I did without the time off?
This ability to notice, and then to see, is a sign of strength. Otherwise, I am merely going through the motions without ever doing the hard work of asking why. And without noticing, I fail to take the opportunity to learn.
To be strong means to attempt, to err, and always aim to learn. We are in this life to grow and to leave the world a better place than we found it. Having the humility to recognise that others have things to teach us and that we do not know all is a form of strength.
Recent global events have tested my capacity to tolerate, to embrace, and to be flexible when confronted with things I disagree with, dislike, or wish were different. Personal experience has taught me that while it is important to know what I can and cannot tolerate, there is also a difference between cannot and will not. In many ways, this is a choice.
And I believe I am stronger for having learned that.
And I believe I am stronger for looking at those black and purple climbs and asking, “What if I?” instead of telling myself, “You can’t”.
“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.” -Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum