Three Kinds Of Hardship

Like you, I love to hear stories of those who have accomplished amazing things in the realm of sports and adventure. I recently listened to Rich Roll’s interview with Kimberly Chambers, ultra-distance open water swimmer, who, in 2014, was the 3rd woman to finish the Oceans 7 series of channel swims around the world. She faced great physiological and mental challenge, but the conditions were chosen and she was prepared for them.

I also have a deep curiosity about survival (and non-survival) in extreme conditions. Many of those stories of survival started as situation with someone enjoying a sport – I can think of many sailing or mountain climbing examples – and ended up as tragedies or a close-calls with one. One moment they were voluntarily dealing with some physical or mental challenge and the next they were involuntarily struggling for their life. One of my favorite stories is of Steven Callahan who’s story of shipwreck in the Atlantic he captured in his book Adrift: 76 Days Lost At Sea.

Then there are everyday, ordinary crises and hardships that impose themselves upon anyone, anywhere when no one is expecting it. Chances are you or a person very close to you has faced one recently. No one volunteers for these. The latest story I listened to on the Tim Ferriss podcast was about John Crowley‘s family who had two children struck by a fatal genetic disease nearly at the same time, and he describes their journey through that agonizing experience.


Artificial Hardships

In that interview, John used the phrase ‘artificial hardship’ in a response to Tim’s question about what kinds of resilience training would he recommend to others. This phrase ‘artificial hardship’ caught my attention because it has been a topic I’ve been pondering for quite a while, and have wanted to address in the world of sports. What Tim was referring to was the kind of staged hardship can be provided in those training experiences created by military or athletic specialists that that people sign up for in the hope they will acquire extraordinary physical, mental and emotional stamina, to be just like the elites they are learning from.

What I think John was implying and what I have been thinking is that a few days or weeks or even years of training in artificial hardship does not easily, and is often not sufficient to infuse positive traits into people which then carry over into ordinary challenges of life. Even if someone can pick up those traits in a few days of grueling exercise, what exactly do they envision using them for? Are they going to parachute at night into a Central Asian country or swim the Bering Strait?

From my survey of the literature on the topic there is a significant difference between the experience of hardship that one has when he has voluntarily entered into it – such as in sport and the difficulties those activities present – and those torturous experiences that he didn’t think he signed up for – like the harsh realities of war, natural disaster, disease, relational crisis (particularly in the family). And crises that involve relationship with other people are likely to be the most profoundly difficult of all. Those who demonstrate skill, courage and hope in the midst of these kinds of hardships are the most to be admired because they dealt well with something that was imposed upon them – something we fear happening to ourselves, what could very possibly happen to ourselves –  and wonder if we could handle it as well.


The Purpose Of Sport

I feel sport is at its best when it helps the athlete develop characteristics which enable him to walk through involuntary hardship with more skill, courage, hope and compassion. This kind of sporting achievement provides society with truly valuable examples and role models. When kids enter into a sports culture that cultivates these characteristics we are strengthening our society.

I feel sports is at its worst when those who are showered with praise on the field or court are demonstrably terrible at handling hardships outside. They provide society with the worst examples. When kids enter into a sports culture that cultivates these characteristics we are injuring society. It doesn’t matter how many podiums he stood upon if he is an absolute jerk to everyone around. He has won but he has failed himself and the community.

Some people seek out sport and athletic experience to help them become ‘better people’ – there can only be one agreeable social definition of ‘better’ = people who are wonderful to be around – better yet, wonderful to live with in close quarters. These kind of athletes encourage us, they inspire us, they energize us, they support us – we want to be like them and they make us feel like it is even more possible for us to be like they are, not less. They reveal the pathway to elite character, not obscure it. They demonstrate the priorities, the attention, the persistence, the patience in relationship that excellence in their sport demanded of them.

Some people seek out sport, it seems, in order to avoid dealing with the outside world and its difficulties. If only they could dominate others out there like they can on the field or court. They try, but their treasured character on the field doesn’t work well in real life outside so their relationships seem like a tragedy. No wonder they try to remain hidden in that fantasy sports world. Yet, what will happen when the curtain closes on their career?


Not Glamorous, But Very Important

We all feel the satisfaction of overcoming the hardships and obstacles our chosen sport imposes upon us – hardships conveniently selected to take us just beyond our current abilities. It was difficult but it felt so good to persevere and break through. Many people talk about how they got to know their ‘real’ selves so much better from that voluntary, grueling experience.

But consider the hardships ordinary life imposes on us every day. They are rarely a good fit for our current abilities and they never show up at convenient times. They are extremely difficult, yet they are just not glamorous to go through. No medallions or t-shirts given out on the other side. Instead, these expose things inside we don’t really want to brag about, even in a memoir later on. But our private success in these hardships is infinitely more important to society. We need private heroes far more than we need athletic ones. Every one of us will be positioned several times in life to make a heroic move that no one else will ever know about.

For some months I have been holding dear a paraphrased version of Seneca’s philosophy: hardship is my opportunity to display character.

    For the truly harmonious character, suffering of any kind is only an opportunity to display his inner strength, his virtus. Therefore we must not shrink in fear ‘from those things that immortal gods apply like spurs to our souls. Disaster is Virtues’s opportunity…
    A man may display his virtue in times of great danger, in prison, in war, but he can also do so in his bed. There, too, proof may be given of a powerful, unflinching spirit.  (p. 149 in “Paul and Seneca” by Jan Nicolaas Sevenster)

I want to advocate for two things here:

1) Let us enter into our favorite sport training in order to gain more strength, more skill, more character to deal well with hardships in the rest of our life. Let us use artificial hardships as much as we can to acquire truly useful traits which make us handle natural hardships so much better. If the people closest to us also feel the positive difference our sports life is making on us as a person, then that is a good indicator we are using it for the right purposes.

2) Let us give attention and value only to those athletes and athletic cultures that create the kind of people we want as wonderful members and examples in society.



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