The Turtle & The Hare
Lately I’ve been using Twitter a little more heavily, mostly to keep up with developments I’m following in a few different areas. This article about our current pandemic situation and finish-line anxiety popped up in my feed yesterday:
Opinion: Finish-line anxiety is now the defining feature of pandemic life
At the beginning of March, I made what felt like a momentous decision: I decided to book a family summer vacation…
This article reminded me of a conversation I had just had on Lunchclub with an anthropologist, who told me his work right now is focused on the modern definition of “endurance”.
Endurance is a funny word, that has both positive and negative meaning associated with it. Endurance is what powers you through a marathon; but in contemporary Biblical terms (and older Puritanical terms), one must “endure” hardship, especially on the path to martyrdom or sainthood.
In the Middle Ages, pilgrimages were actually trifectas of endurance: in duration, in difficulty, and in suffering. Subjects were ordered to go on pilgrimage as part of their penance, and part of a proof of loyalty to the Church, and later to the State. Contemporaries of witch trials, the idea was that if you survived and returned from your pilgrimage, you will be rewarded with earthly riches as well as heavenly ones. If you didn’t survive and/or return, you at least qualified for the heavenly rewards. A win-win!
Personally, I believe when unruly or dangerous (read: rebellious) subjects were ordered on a pilgrimage, it was more of a snipe hunt than an actual quest. The likelihood of surviving, let alone returning, was pretty low — a pretty safe risk for those in power, and a great way to get rid of troublesome citizens while maintaining the appearance of piety.
In Biblical terms, endurance is linked to suffering and martyrdom. But in capitalist terms, it’s a sign of strength and persistence. Being able to outlast your rival at a negotiation table in order to win deal terms takes endurance; staying on the market despite market volatility, e.g., outlasting the competition, takes endurance; exercising the filibuster in Congress to block a vote you’d otherwise lose takes endurance; and completing a marathon takes endurance.
My anthropologist lunch date shared with me that part of his study was an exploration of Japanese sports, and he noted a lot of Japanese sports and athletes are very high performers in endurance… and yet, Japanese marathon runners rarely actually win the race. The complete it, but they don’t tend to win.
I have been training in Ninjutsu, a Japanese martial art for the past 20+ years; that said, I’m not an expert on Japanese culture, history, society, or identity. I love what I learn from Ninjutsu, but I’m not trying to be Japanese, and training in a Japanese martial art does not give me any special insight into what it means to be Japanese.
However, what it has given me an insight into, is endurance. In my understanding through my training, endurance is not about winning at all; it’s about pacing yourself, caring for yourself, preparing yourself to handle whatever test you’re going through in the moment to preserve yourself for being able to live a productive life on the other side of that test. In martial arts terms, that literally means a test.
As I was preparing for my first black belt test, I had also decided to run a marathon. I had no delusion that I would actually win it; I only wanted to complete the race in under 6 hours, and experience what it feels like to cross a finish line after such a severe test of physical endurance.
My teacher kept telling me that the Shodan black belt test is really hard — in our school, it lasts about two hours, includes every single technique you’ve learned from white belt through to brown, plus the specific techniques you’ve been required to learn for your black belt, plus using and evading a live sword.
This sounded tough, but after completing my marathon the month before my test (5h28m thank you very much), I thought for sure my non-marathon-running Sensei couldn’t possibly know what I had already endured. Surely my belt test couldn’t be harder than running for 5 1/2 hours.
Yet, as it turned out, it was. Those two hours were more exhausting than anything I had ever done, because I wasn’t just moving; I had to engage my entire self: my full attention, my focus, my memory, my skill and my talent, all of my senses, and all of my confidence to help me keep my spirit up every time I was corrected or knocked down. And although I was psyched up at the start of the test, I had to rigorously pace myself because I didn’t know when the weapons section would be introduced.
As with the marathon, it wasn’t about winning. There is no winning in a belt test: you either pass, or you don’t. But you don’t win; you get through it — hopefully in good enough shape to keep going, and to want to keep going. Because there’s always more to learn, there’s always another test, there’s always another belt. The goal is that when you are ready for your next test, you’ll face it with confidence, wisdom and enthusiasm, trusting in yourself enough to know that you will, in fact, endure.
As we continue our halting steps towards more vaccinations, more herd immunity, and more return to “normal” life, it may help us to remember that it’s not about the finish line; it’s not about winning at all. Like everything in life, it’s about how well you are running the race.
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