In search of the ultimate virtue…
Many ancient warrior cultures such as the Spartans and Aztecs worshipped strength as the ultimate virtue that any human could aspire to. The surface reason for this is readily apparent because unlike in our modern times, physical combat was the accepted method for settling disputes back then. It follows therefore, that the more physically strong or battle hardened you were in those times, the more successful your life became because your strength furnished you with the ability to fend off rivals who threatened your eminence or position in life. Being a strong individual or empire in those days also gave you the resources required to snatch the property and possessions of other people and/or city states in order to fulfil the primal desire to expand reach and power. As important as it was to show strength in those ancient times, it was perhaps even more important to avoid a show of weakness as that could literally mean certain death. For example, a show of weakness in battle could mean the difference between leaving the battlefield with your life and limbs intact, or taking a lethal bronze sword through the jaw as your lack of confidence would arm your opponent with the requisite boldness to strike with deadly intentions. All of this might sound very barbaric to those of us living in the modern world today but society was much more blatantly ruthless and machiavellian back then. The fact that our world and the people that inhabit it have now become much more refined, begs the following question: is the need for strength now a thing of bygone eras? In the much more physically and socially forgiving environments that we all now live in, is the need for strength still just as important?
Even though we modern humans act with a much higher level of decorum than our ancestors from generations past, our basic human instincts are still very much the same. Yes, our collective vanity as a species seduces us into believing that we are totally spiritual and sentient beings who never give way to anything petty or foolish. The truth however is that although we are nature’s highest form of creation, we all still descended from apes and retain primal emotions and motives like jealousy and rage which many of us struggle to suppress and control on a daily basis. We still have battles with each other till this very day, with the only difference being that these battles have now moved into more mental and political realms. Many of us still crave power over others merely for the sake of stroking our own egos and basking in our own awesomeness. Our modern forms of power are now measured in units of a bank balance or how many employees we command rather than the number of cattle and farmland owned as it might have been measured in times past. All this aside, the underlying premise is still the same. Yes, we have a lot less body odor, and are a lot smarter, but when you really think deeply about it, human nature hasn’t really changed at all. We are pretty much still the same homosapien savages engaging in a much more polished struggle for survival… we just happen to be a bit more tempered by societal rules and seasoned by generations of accumulated wisdom.
The prominence of our natural/less than ideal inclinations and desires explains why it can be so difficult for us humans to consistently do the right thing. We are naturally lazy… that’s the blunt truth. Let’s face it… it is much easier to sit on the couch with a bag of doritos and watch reruns of your favorite show than it is to go to the local lap pool and swim 1000 meters after work everyday. It is much easier to pretend that you don’t like music than it is to endure the pain and struggle required to master a musical instrument through consistent and deliberate practice over a period of 10+ years. It almost seems like a cruel cosmic joke the universe plays on us… the lion share of actions which redound to our eventual benefit, usually feel painful in the short term. Perhaps it is a mechanism of natural selection to make sure that only the most disciplined amongst us actually end up possessing the power to decide the direction of our cultural choices, technological developments, and the general advancement of our species. The equation is astoundingly simple… the more righteous pain you can endure (within reason of course), the more power you will have and the better off your life will be in the long run.
Building an extraordinarily successful life is something that all of us humans aspire to regardless of artificial barriers like race, social class, sexual orientation, or gender. Everyone I know, from some of my fellow artists musicians and scientists, to company CEOs, to my awesome barber, wants to live a good life. So why then do so many of us end up settling for less than ideal life circumstances? Well, let me explain. You see the thing is that building an extraordinarily successful life is pretty counter intuitive as it requires a lot of continued hard work for a long period of time. Something in all of us on an emotional level (i.e. our naturally human lazy streak) wants to believe in quick fixes and shortcuts to the attainment of our most cherished goals even though we logically know much better. To have a good life replete with amazing health, pride inspiring accomplishments, an adorable spouse who adores you, consummate skill at your profession or trade and so on, requires a great deal of suffering and discomfort. Getting to this enviable position in life requires that we consistently do the thing that is most emotionally difficult to do in every situation, effectively going in the opposite direction of our fundamental human nature. To get really good at your craft, you have to practice deliberately for 5 days each week for at least two hours each day… to keep your spouse happy, you have to constantly show him or her how much you care with the appropriate words and gestures… to have amazing health you have to eat properly and exercise consistently. These things just don’t happen naturally… they require a great deal of discipline, hard work, and attention to detail on a continuous basis. These qualities only exist in individuals who have sufficiently trained themselves to endure temporary discomfort in the present for the sake of a much larger future payoff.
Strength is the quality that furnishes an individual with the ability to endure temporary discomfort in the interest of a much larger future benefit or payoff. It is therefore a quality of the utmost importance to any individual aiming to live a good life. Although we don’t have as many physical battles to fight anymore, strength is still just as important today as it was in the ancient age of the Spartan warrior. In our modern world, physical strength is still a vital quality to have provided it is used appropriately. An example of an appropriate use of physical strength would be effectively defending oneself when under attack from a hostile other. To that extent, physical strength is still an awesome quality to have. For the most part however, having physical strength isn’t quite as important as it used to be. After all, we’ve all agreed that you can’t just land a “spinning back elbow” or a “question mark kick” on someone’s jaw even if the other person deserves it and you are skilled and powerful enough to do so. We’ve also agreed that you can’t just go and threaten to beat up your professor because you didn’t get an A in whatever class it is… societal laws prevent any of us from doing that. We also now have wonderful machines and technology that do heavy and repetitive manual labor for us with little or no physical exertion required on our part, reducing the need for physical strength in the workplace as well as in other practical areas of life. All of the immediately above mentioned ideas point to strength of an emotional and mental nature as the most important type of strength required in today’s world.
The fundamental reason for the importance of mental and emotional strength in our modern world is simple: they make all other virtues possible. The world has been filled with temptation since time immemorial and each of us must encounter a subset of these temptations and struggle to overcome them each day assuming we want to maintain positive progress in our lives. Actually, a legitimate argument could be made that temptation is far more pronounced in our modern age than it ever was in the past due in part to the immense global connectivity that is pervasive of our time. Everywhere we look, we are urged to spend far more than we can comfortably earn, get fat, believe that valuable things can come easily, and so on. The truth as you probably already know is that none of the above are sustainable ways of living the successful life we all seek. It takes a certain strength of will for a man or woman to avoid infidelity in the presence of daily access to it. To diligently exercise your body week after week for years on end requires a certain dedication and an uncommon strength of mind and character. The patience required to cultivate and master a skill or talent is also fundamentally born of strength that is emotional and mental in nature. So perhaps in our quiet and private moments when we pray to whatever Deity we serve, it would serve us well to ask him/her or it to endow us with as much mental and physical strength and power as possible. Not for the mere shallow desire to dominate and control others, but rather that we may continue to do the right thing and thus elevate ourselves and those around us.
One of my favorite quotes on the virtue of strength comes from Bruce Lee and I will paraphrase it here: “Do not pray for an easy life… Rather, you must pray for strength so that you may endure and rise above any circumstances that may be placed in your path”. These are truly wise words that ring more and more true the older I get. The truth is that we will all be challenged and/or led to temptation at some point in our lives… such is the nature of life. It is my hope that you and I will continue to find the strength to meet these challenges head on, overcome them, and use the lessons therein as seeds for further advancement.
Oyolu B.C. Ph.D.
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