—Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World
It’s funny how susceptible we are to overinflating our sense of control and understanding. We think we have everything all figured out…right up until the point when we realize that we don’t. These sorts of epistemological crossroads occur throughout a person’s life, sometimes small and other times larger, and I suppose we have a choice as to how we respond. The first choice is to ignore the feedback and basically maintain one’s default position by explaining away the dissonance…either through externalizing the cause or inventing some sort of fable to explain how the input still fits our established worldview. The second choice seems the more appealing one…that is, to accept the fact that we may have been wrong all along. And perhaps ‘wrong’ is too harsh. Maybe a better characterization would be ‘fallible’. It’s the more mature acknowledgment that, at the end of the day, our understanding of why and how things turn out the way they do is feeble at best.
I suppose this is all in line with that famous Socratic assertion of being the wisest man in Athens precisely due to the fact that he was the only one to acknowledge his own ignorance. Similarly, I had a brilliant philosophy professor once say, “I am a fallibilist before all else”. In plainer speech, it’s simply the injunction that, even when things are going just as you planned, don’t get too cocky.
Now what does this all have to do with training? Well, a lot I think. But of course I could well be wrong, so I’ll let you be the judge. Here’s an anecdote:
Last week I hurt my back badly during what seemed like a very routine met-con workout. Light weights, circuit-style session that was in no way different or more taxing than what I had done a million times before. Yet, midway through I could feel a twinge develop in my low back and it got progressively worse. For the next two days I was essentially incapacitated, unable to do even the most basic tasks of daily living without a lot of pain. Since then, it’s gotten gradually better and is trending toward a full recovery. But the nature of the injury itself and the recovery is not the point. The point is that, in the weeks leading up to the injury I was feeling strong and powerful…invincible in a lot of ways. I was doing daily workouts, some two-a-days and the occasional three-a-day. I was playing ball each week, doing lots of plyos, lifting heavy in the gym, running a good chunk of middle-distance stuff, flipping tires…and all the while not getting enough sleep and recovery. But I was feeling on top of the world…right up to the point where I couldn’t put my own bloody socks on without grimacing in pain. I had thought that I had it all figured out…until of course I didn’t.
I’m not writing this as a lecture on hubris. There’s a whole body of Greek Tragedy that does a far more entertaining job of that. What I’m getting at is that the universe is constantly telling us shit, and we have the choice whether or not we listen and pay attention. If we’re arrogant and think that we have it all figured out, we miss it. And sometimes there’s a big karmic slap in the face to really drive the point home. Maybe, like me, you’re feeling like the biggest, baddest motherfucker in the gym and then are humbled by an injury that reduces you to feeling about as tough as an emaciated 5-year-old for a couple of days. Maybe it’s something at work – you feel like you’re the expert on a topic and that you’ve nothing else to learn, until someone asks you a question that makes you feel like an idiot. Maybe you get arrogant about your personal relationships. You operate under the assumption that your marriage (or whatever arrangement you’re in) is stronger than all the others around you. You start to subconsciously look down on those around you who seem to have so many problems and seem to be doing such a shit job of things. Until some crisis happens to throw everything you previously believed into question. The truths that we hold to be self-evident turn out to not be that way at all.
All of these situations are opportunities to take stock of one’s beliefs. There’s a line I’ve always loved from the liner notes of Tool’s 1996 Aenima album that reads, “Beliefs allow the mind to stop functioning. A non-functioning mind is clinically dead. Believe in Nothing”. This isn’t nihilistic. It’s an admonition to never allow oneself to coast or turn on the auto-pilot. One must embrace the idea, not on a mere intellectual level but in a real in-your-bones sense, that everything we take for granted is fundamentally fragile. As the 12th century Japanese poet Saigyo writes, “Drops of dew strung out on filaments of spider web. Such are the trappings that deck out this world.”
I think that’s part of the reason why I enjoy running at night so much. Late last night I was out doing sprints on the street in front of my house. The whole world was beautifully dark and cool. Here I am, exerting myself to my absolute maximum capacity, feeling at the peak of my power, when just one look up at those cold, merciless stars reduces all my efforts to the tiniest of insignificances. All sense of control and certainty evaporates into a sort of helpless reverence in front of such majestic indifference. As though anything I could do to purposefully influence that massive, swirling cosmic machinery could have even the slightest of consequences.
The ‘happier’ corollary of all of this uncertainty, however, is that, no matter how bad things get, they can always get better. This often happens when least expected. I think there was a line from somewhere in Tolkien that the greatest gifts are those that arrive unlooked for. It certainly seems that way sometimes. Alan Watts always wrote a lot about the law of reverse effort. That is, that the harder you ‘try’ to force something, the worse it tends to go. Far better to split wood with the grain than to try to work against it. For the same reason, we’re always drawn to people (in athletics, music, etc.) who make things look effortless. This of course shouldn’t absolve a person from hard work or effort…not at all! But I think it’s tied back to that whole concept of listening and being receptive to what the universe (or God, etc.) is trying to communicate. There are situations when one has to roll up one’s sleeves and persevere, but there are others when the only response is to change course or tactics based on the feedback that you’re being given. Trying to control what is essentially uncontrollable is a recipe for disaster. And the most serendipitous positives often come from what was originally perceived as a terrible situation. An injury forces a person to explore new sports or other training modalities that were hitherto unheard of. A job loss sparks a new entrepreneurial venture or leads to a more interesting position elsewhere. A dissolving relationship makes room for the possibility of an even better one to develop.
We’re not, of course, mere leaves being blown about in the wind. We do have the ability to influence some of the things around us through our efforts. It’s arrogance that should be avoided…arrogance that we control more than we actually do. I think it’s important, as much as possible, to cultivate the attitude of a student no matter how much of a master you feel you’ve become at anything. True strength comes in the ability to learn and adapt…to be flexible. The willow bends in the windstorm and survives…while the rigid oak resists and then snaps. We get immersed in our own little echo chambers of belief. We get tied up in certain ways of thinking about things and feel that we’ve invested too much in them to change course. It’s the fallacy of sunk costs.
I think that’s what William Blake was trying to get at here. Poor Newton, all his energies wrapped up in trying to analyze and quantify the small field in front of him that he understands, all the while blinded to the intricacies and complexities that lie just beyond that field.
We ought to be careful not to do the same, either in the realm of health and fitness or more broadly. The exciting and transformative stuff often comes from humbly and open-mindedly looking outside our current paradigm. No matter how good or how bad things seem, remain open to the ever-present idea that they can change with a split-second’s notice. The skill is not in predicting or controlling those vicissitudes…it’s in listening, reacting and adapting in the most graceful way possible. Real wisdom lies in understanding our own limitations.