Today I suffered a minor setback. It looks like some petty legal business I am involved with may not succeed. I felt down, negative and not a little pissed off. Then I remembered Ikusan. Ikusan was one of my mentors in Japan. A diminutive former school teacher, she had lived through WW2 in southern Japan and after the war, due to poor health conditions at the time, contracted TB. But she had survived and is still alive today aged 86.
Whenever I felt down, or was slightly injured while training in Aikido, or said I wasn’t up to something Ikusan would say, “Be Strong!”. If I moaned about having a cold, “Be Strong!” If I said things ‘weren’t fair’: “Be Strong!” When a tiny elderly lady tells you to toughen up you do- you’re half shamed not to.
The mantra I have made out of Ikusan’s clarion call is: Be Tough, or, Tough it out, or, Toughen up. Be tough(er) in a world that is constantly trying to make out humans are weaker than they really are: less flexible, less adaptable, less tolerant, less tough. My primary interest here is ‘mental toughness’, though physical toughness is very much connected to mental toughness, and can be its precursor and handmaiden. But the real aim is mental toughness- whatever our age, size, fitness and inclinations we can all become mentally tougher- whereas physical toughness of an extreme variety may only be of use to a rugby player or a member of special forces.
I think instead of talking about personal development we should talk, and think about, personal toughness. We need to make the outside as strong as possible before we start tinkering with the inside. And by ‘outside’ I mean our everyday personality, the one we use to get most life tasks done. By ‘inside’ I mean the part of our selves, or inner self, that addresses, or contemplates, such questions as “who am I?”, “Where am I from?”, “What part of me survives death?”. These questions are the role of inner development, but, to be healthy, it requires a sturdy exterior framework- a real tough exterior.
Doesn’t being tough preclude sensitivity to art and the feelings of others? Not at all. Sensitivity of a valuable kind has an inverse relationship with self-centredness; it does not solely rely on having highly tuned antennae. The more self-centred you are the less useful your ‘sensitivity’ will be, the more out of touch it will be. Ever been out with a top ornithologist? He or she will be picking out and recognising birds you hardly notice. That’s real sensitivity, trained by being concerned with what is out there rather than worrying about the noise between the walls of your cranium. Being tough means you can tune out self-centredness, focus outwards, and paradoxically be more sensitive.
Something in me has always been drawn to self-help books and self-development ideas but there has always been a certain reluctance to take them too seriously. It was as if I always knew they were promising TOO MUCH, or, at least, over stepping their jurisdiction. I think getting tougher, or improving personal toughness locates self help in the most useful and least pretentious domain available.
I am going to be writing a lot more about toughening up over the next few weeks. It’s a subject that has been addressed recently by Nicholas Taleb, of ‘Black Swans’ fame, in the form of being robust or fragile. His belief is that we are all encouraged to be more fragile than we need to be. In other words: toughen up.
Does building mental toughness mean being less sympathetic to others? Again I think there is a false assumption at work here: sympathy is about how interested and concerned we are with others, whereas toughness is concerned about building our own operating system- which could be sympathetic or not- to be as hardy as possible. It’s no good being sympathetic to the plight of others if you are too stressed to leave the house. It’s no good having an ambulance if the engine is broken, the tyres flat. The external, whilst no guarantor of the internal, is intimately connected with it. Knights, in order to do good, were required to learn how to fight first.
Is an emphasis on toughness vaguely fascistic? Emphatically not, fascism in all its garbs is a form of mental weakness: the ills of the world are blamed on an outgroup rather than taking responsibility for the world as it is. Toughening up involves accepting all the problems of the world for what they are, not pretending there is a panacea that will cure everything.
In our amazingly fast world the slightest delay can leave us fuming- this is where we should laugh: that’s mental toughness, instead of freaking out which is a weakness that is culturally condoned. When the world seems to be getting you down- toughen up!