Sorry that this blog has lately become biweekly- I’ve lately been planning to pull off a big redesign. I’m not quite ready to unveil it just yet, but when I do… oh it’s going to be worth it. Trust me.
When I started trying to get fit, I had a notion of what I wanted to do and how I wanted to look- but I had never been an athlete before. I didn’t have any sports posters, or athletes I idealized. Sports were never a big part of my life, let alone bodybuilding or fitness.
What I did have, however, was literature, movies, and comic books.
The hell with Michael Jordan- I wanted to be unstoppable like Juggernaut. I wanted to run like the Flash. I wanted to throw a punch like Bruce Lee, lift like Superman, and be as precise and flawlessly skilled as Batman. When I exercised, I wanted Rocky Balboa beside me, and when I ran a race, it was against Umslopogaas the Zulu warrior.
We all need heroes- people and characters to inspire and enable us.
Here’s some of mine.
The BHB’s A-Team
Sun Wukong is my favorite example of having everything, and losing it through foolishness. A divinely-born stone ape, Monkey attained immortality and superhuman powers through nurturing himself physically and spiritually. He then let his power go to his head, made war against heaven, and wound up trapped beneath a mountain for 500 years. Eventually, he was freed and found redemption through humility and helping others. For his good works, he even attained Buddhahood, earning the name “Buddha Victorious in Strife.”
Every time I read Journey to the West, besides laughing at Monkeys antics and adventures, I learn again that strength only matters for what you do with it, that nothing worthwhile comes without effort, but that “Nothing on Earth is difficult- it is only our minds that make it so!
Steeped as they are in imperialism, colonialism, and all the exploitative racial thinking of the Victorian Era, the Allan Quatermain novels still introduced us to the “lost world” adventure narrative. They also offered us a character possessing absolute nobility and quiet strength. No, not Quatermain- rather his sometime companion, the Zulu chief Umslopogaas.
An old warrior, wielding his beloved axe, Umslopogaas saw himself as inferior to no one, and superior only to those he deemed dishonorable. Any man who underestimated him based on his race would be met with dispassionate regard, and often a sort of dry humor.
My favorite moment for him comes at the end of the book “Allan Quatermain.” After having fought in a massive battle the day before, running through the night (keeping pace with a galloping horse the entire way,) and only sleeping for a few hours, Umslopogaas awakes and knows he must fight again against incredible odds:
“… The hour has come for us, old hunter. So be it: we have had our time, but I would that in it I had seen some more such fights as yesterday’s. ‘Let them bury me after the fashion of my people, Macumazahn, and set my eyes towards Zululand.”
– “Allan Quatermain”, H. Rider Haggard
Teddy Roosevelt was born to a wealthy and well-connected family, but with debilitating asthma. Against expectations, he took to the outdoor life and exercised vigorously. A rancher, a hunter, a policeman, and a naturalist, Teddy resigned from a comfortable desk job under the secretary of the Navy to form the Rough Riders and fight in the Spanish-American War. While campaigning for his “Bull Moose” progressive party, Roosevelt was shot in the chest just before he was to give a speech. The bullet went through his steel eyeglass case and the 50-page speech in his pocket before lodging itself in his chest muscle. Roosevelt declined to be taken to the hospital, and proceeded to give a 90-minute speech before allowing himself to be treated.
Lawrence was born with a sort of megacephaly (a larger head and scrawny body) and also took to strenuous exercise and rigorous- often dangerous- self-imposed endurance trials. He would test himself against sleeplessness by staying up for days at a time. He would fast to test himself against hunger, and would regularly challenge himself against extreme heat and cold. Supposedly, in his youth, Lawrence could run a 7-minute mile barefoot.
In the lives of both men, I learn that the circumstan
ces of your birth need not define you, and that you certainly do not have to live the life that others expect of you.
While anyone could stand to learn from Lee’s physical training, dedication, perseverance, I personally learn most from his adaptability. Unwilling to be constrained by concepts of “discipline,” “school,” or nationality, he studied widely and voraciously- borrowing what he liked, putting aside what he didn’t, and combining it all into a form all his own.
These were some of my heroes- who are yours? Who do you see coaching you when you work out, or standing at your shoulder when you struggle?