The strenuous life

“If you are rich and are worth your salt, you will teach your sons that though they may have leisure, it is not to be spent in idleness; for wisely used leisure merely means that those who possess it, being free from the necessity of working for their livelihood, are all the more bound to carry on some kind of non-remunerative work in science, in letters, in art, in exploration, in historical research—work of the type we most need in this country.” — Theodore Roosevelt, Speech before the Hamilton Club, Chicago, April 10, 1899

A mere life of ease is not in the end a very satisfactory life.
A mere life of ease is not in the end a very satisfactory life.

While Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas about what constituted worthwhile pursuits revolved around things like liberating islands from the Spanish and hunting big game, I really like the theme of his essay on the strenuous life. It’s centered the ideal of courage and bravely facing big challenges. For Roosevelt, it’s through our ‘striving to win competence’ that we achieve greatness and that any meaningful endeavor involves strife.

Roosevelt was making a pitch to build up the army and navy at the time and often refers to righteous involvement beyond our borders as a national duty, but throughout his speech is a call for personal responsibility and self-mastery. It’s this personal aspect that I really like, because in our modern western culture, strife is a dirty word. Strife implies struggle; something to be minimized or avoided. Yet it’s through rising to meet great personal challenges that greatness is born.

No one talks about the strenuous life today, because it doesn’t sell. The entire infomercial industry exists because apparently a vast number of consumers think that boiling an egg is way too strenuous. What does sell? Ease, leisure, convenience, avoidance, escape. This is the life most people aspire to; it is the big payoff for the strenuous modern lives we lead. But I look at the strenuous life in a completely different way; one in which the strenuousness itself is a reward.

First of all, strenuous doesn’t mean stress. It means requiring or involving the use of great energy. In modern language, we’ve construed strenuous to mean toil, sweat and pain. These are things that affluent societies try to rise above. The promise of affluence that we are being sold is based on products or services that will make our life less strenuous, and remove the effort that is essential to the creative process.

Creativity requires energy, and it follows that great creativity requires great energy. What we’re doing when we avoid the strenuous life, is trying to create without serious effort. It doesn’t really work this way. Yes, technology can streamline processes and save us time, but it can’t take the place of critical inquiry, exploration, or self-directed change.

Seeking the strenuous life is purposefully generating a dynamic tension. It is placing in opposition the person you know yourself to be now, versus your ideal self. In that gap is tension; tension from the known past pulling on you, and a compelling but uncertain future pulling on you, like two opposite ends of a rubber band. One anchored in the present, one anchored in a vision of the future. Most people tend to give up on creating a future distinct from the past, because it is uncertain, and so the tension required to grow or create meaningful change dissapates, and we walk around like limp rubber bands.

Now think of the kinetic energy that builds up in the creative process. Take a rubber band and stretch it between your two pointer fingers. If you were to release attachment to patterns of the past, the vision of the future will pull you racing toward it. If you give up commitment to the possibility of the future, you will be flung right back to where you are now.

The strenuous life to me is one that values this creative tension and seeks resolution through purposeful growth. (See the post Only Dead Fish Go with the Flow). Though it may seem that we already have too much tension and we’re constantly trying to reduce it, creative tension requires resistance; resisting the familiar pull of the past and compelling yourself to excel in any endeavor, regardless of self-doubt or inexperience. It is constantly pushing boundaries, testing your limits, frequently failing and continuously learning in the process. Most importantly perhaps, the strenuous life is about sacrifice. I don’t mean sacrificing your happiness, morals or material prosperity, but giving up the idea of who you have been to create space for the person you can be.

This kind of strenuous life is not for most people, because of the risks involved. I’m not talking about physical or financial risks, but the risk of losing one’s self. If you know yourself to be a certain way, whether or not you’re happy being that way, if you change something, you now have to re-calibrate and create a new set of rules about who you are. There is an ambiguity and contradiction here that most are not comfortable with. The boundaryless life celebrates this tension and strenuous effort.

I have become someone who purposely seeks the strenuous life. Though I spend time in Thailand to avoid the strain of shoveling snow, I challenge myself in meaningful ways: absorbing a new language and culture, sharpening my writing skills by sharing them with an audience, pushing for one more rep, questioning whose agenda I am following, and when I fail, preferring to fail big.

Finally, I think Roosevelt summed up my beliefs on the strenuous life beautifully in his “Citizenship in a Republic” speech at the Sorbonne in 1910:

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”