It’s obviously been a long ass time since I’ve written anything on this blog. And despite concerns for the legions of surely distraught fans, I’m going to take a navel-gazey approach here and only focus on myself. And the fact is that it’s entirely my own fault for not establishing a more regular regimen of writing. It’s not for lack of ideas, because a lot of them cross my mind as potential topics. It’s not for lack of time, because I manage to find the time to do a bunch of other shit. It’s not because of kids, work, other commitments, etc. It’s simply my own fault that I haven’t made it a priority.
“On any team, in any organization, all responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader. The leader must own everything in his or her world. There is no one else to blame. The leader must acknowledge mistakes and admit failures, take ownership of them, and develop a plan to win.”
I love this idea. Carrying it down from a team/organization to the level of the individual, it says a lot about the idea of personal responsibility. Since we’re all leaders of our own minds and bodies, even if not everyone is leader of a corporation or SEAL team, it stands to reason that we should be taking extreme ownership of our words and actions rather than deflecting blame onto any other external factors.
As far as I can tell, it’s always pointless to blame the external, for the very pragmatic reason that it does one absolutely no good. External circumstances are always changing, both for good and for bad (although even those value judgements are largely matters of perspective, and may change with time – There’s an old Chinese parable about an old man and a horse that deals with that idea…). The only thing we are able to control is our response to those externals. Ryan Holliday’s book on Stoicism, The Obstacle is the Way, talks about this. Quoting Epictetus he writes:
“In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.”
It’s our choices that we can, and must, take full responsibility for and ownership of. Instead of looking outward, which is often the temptation, we really should be focusing within. What have I done to help create the current situation? What can I do right now to make it better? How can I act in future situations to get a better outcome? The idea is not far removed from a passage in Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings:
“There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself.”
There’s a massive amount of power that comes with taking absolute ownership and responsibility for everything that happens in your life. As Jordan Peterson so eloquently puts it, there’s real profound meaning in carrying a heavy load and taking on responsibility. He criticizes, appropriately so I would say, the focus that we seem to place on rights and the relatively little focus that is placed on responsibilities.
People often rise to the occasion when they are given responsibility. I find this especially true of kids. When I give my kids responsibility for a task or a level of behaviour, more often than not they diligently rise to that expectation. That’s not to say that they don’t slip up, as we all do. But they try harder. It’s like when you play a sport, you often rise to the level of your competition. When you play against someone less skilled, oftentimes your performance suffers, likely a result of taking it less seriously.
On a very visceral level, there’s a feeling of meaning and satisfaction that comes alongside massive responsibility. I’m often struck by the feeling when I’m home late at night with my family. I’m a bit of a night owl so it’s sometimes the case that my spouse and four kids are all sleeping peacefully upstairs and I’m still finishing up one thing or another. The house is quiet, still, and suddenly I’m struck by the fact that the safety and well-being of all of these little lives is completely on my shoulders. If anything happens, it’s on me to solve the problem…to protect them…to keep them all safe and warm and fed. It’s a feeling that’s equal parts terrifying and wonderful. I’m sure most parents feel it. It’s ever-present at some level but sometimes it takes those moments of stillness to really feel the profundity of it.
So what on earth does this all have to do with health and fitness, the subject with which this blog is still ostensibly deals? A lot, I would say. It’s very common, and I’m guilty of it myself, to always look to the external barriers to fitness…to come up with excuses…to focus on the limitations.
Shitty food is everywhere and tastes good…
My job is too busy right now…
I have no place to train…
Gyms are too expensive…
Once I get better at (insert whatever skill here), then I’ll start really training…I’m not ready yet…
I didn’t perform as well as I could because of x, y, z…..
These are all appeals to external conditions. They turn a person into a passive victim rather than an active owner of all that is happening. In a way, they are all ways of feeling sorry for oneself.
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.
– D.H. Lawrence, Self-Pity
Not to get into politics but I think that's the single largest flaw of Trump...his apparent inability to admit blame or responsibility for anything. I think it's a fairly common trait among politicians but seems to have reached its apex in the current US president. Everything is a deflection, everything is someone else's fault....there's absolutely no willingness to accept that you've made an error, to apologize for it and then to endeavor to improve.
“Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.”
― Robert E. Howard
A few weeks ago, my eldest child got in trouble at school for mouthing off to a teacher. She may or may not have been justified for feeling slighted, but we had to really hammer home the idea of taking responsibility for the words she said. Her initial defence was, "It's not my fault...it just came out". Which is of course bullshit. She's not some Delphic oracle that spontaneous utters the thoughts of the cosmos. She, like everyone, needed to own the responsibility for the words coming out of her mouth and be prepared to face the consequences.
I've certainly made the mistake of saying or doing things in anger that I don't really mean. We all do of course. But that mistake is multiplied many times over when we're unable, or unwilling, to accept responsibility. In hindsight though, it's our behaviour that is memorable....not the external conditions or context on which we may try to place blame. As an example, many years later I can remember vividly certain unkind words I said to my ex-wife, whereas the actual context (i.e. the specific reason I was upset or the 'cause' of the argument) is completely forgotten. It's my own words or behaviour that I remember, not the external circumstances that seemed so relevant in the moment but that evaporate with the passage of time. Those are the things that weaken us over time. Those situations where we know that we could have done better and didn't. The only hope is to learn from them.
Getting back to the title of this post, "Fault" is maybe too pejorative. According to various sources, Blind Willie Johnson, who wrote Nobody's Fault but Mine (my suggested musical accompaniment to these long-winded ramblings) was blinded at age 7 when his stepmother, in an argument with his father splashed Willie with a caustic solution of lye water. Was that Willie's fault? Of course not. But his response to it was not to wallow in the misery of his misfortune but rather to persevere and eventually become one of the best slide guitarists of all time. Unfortunately, the world is full of situations where horrible things happen to good people, to innocent children, to the undeserving. And I am of course writing from a position of extreme privilege, relatively speaking. Most of us are, if we really consider it...how fortunate we are.
So this is all easy for me to say. I'm not some parent-less refugee child drifting on a raft in the middle of the Mediterranean. It would be wise if we all took a bit more time to consider that old proverb, there, but for the grace of God, go I. Fate and chance affect us all differently. But some people find a way, even if those worst possible situations, to look within, to take responsibility for themselves and for what they can change and control. While some, in a position of absolute privilege and good fortune, choose to focus on the faults of others, the unfairness, the obstacles and excuses. There's no way that we can control all of the externals. Not even close. But we can do everything in our power to set up conditions for the externals to matter less....building resiliency, so to speak. And that's a responsibility that everyone has to themselves.