The Open Secrets: A Strenuous Life

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So many of the deepest, universal, and timeless truths of human existence are things we all know, yet none of us really believe.

These are truths that have been repeated so many times in so many ways that they fade for us into the background noise of life. We develop defenses against them–bulwarks of rationalization, habits of denial–supported greatly by the fact that so many other people share those defenses.

Can anything new be said about them? I wonder. But they must nevertheless be repeated so that they can be renewed in us.

One such truth that we all know but disregard in practice is this: a strenuous life may or may not be a good life, but a good life is a strenuous life.

It takes sustained strenuous effort to grow, improve, and even to maintain health.

  • For the body: strenuous exercise, and careful nutrition.
  • For the intellect: strenuously challenging one’s capacities to keep learning; rooting out long-held beliefs and perspectives that no longer serve us.
  • For the psyche: strenuous effort to overcome patterns of suffering; struggling with obstacles in the never-ending path to greater maturity.
  • For the character, the soul: strenuous effort to choose the right path, make the right choices, instead of the easy and popular ones.

So this great truth is “life sucks,” then?

No. But that is one of the most common disguises this truth wears. Life is inherently difficult and challenging whether you live well or poorly. The specifics of the kinds of suffering are different for enduring the cost of virtue vs paying the price of life without virtue, but either way you cannot successfully avoid suffering.

The difference is that when you live well, the inherent, necessary, unavoidable suffering of life is almost utterly eclipsed by the satisfaction of doing it right.

In other words: If life sucks, you’re doing it wrong.

Life is supposed to be good. It is supposed to be amazing, wonderful, awesome, excellent, beautiful, brilliant. To be these things, it has to be strenuous. It has to be strenuous because building strength requires strenuous effort and without strength, very little of value can be accomplished.

You must use strength to build strength. And it takes strength to grasp the gifts life offers, and make them yours.

Strenuous effort is particularly painful when you are weak, when you are just starting something. But as strength builds, effort becomes not-so-bad. As your body, mind, and soul adapt to a strenuous life, it becomes natural and intuitively right–never easy–but at times joyful, even ecstatic.

Because we live in a finite world, with finite time and finite resources, we do have to exercise diligence in choosing what to spend our strength on. To live well, we must choose to spend it wisely–not wastefully.

If you are surrounded by people who dis-courage you, who dis-empower you, from diligently applying your strength in the ways that seem wisest to you, solitude may allow you to begin to self-correct and heal.

For the long term, it is important to make and cultivate connections with those who en-courage you and empower you to keep coming back, keep building strength, keep fighting and working toward making your life, and your world, better. That may include mentors, teachers, coaches, but it also includes good friends.

We cannot choose the culture of our time and place. But we can, and must, build our own personal  microculture–the part of culture that touches us most directly, our immediate circles of influence–to promote our ability to live a strenuous life.

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2 Responses to The Open Secrets: A Strenuous Life

  1. Steve Kenski says:

    It is amazing how many truths and life lessons seem to get lost in the fog of day-to-day life… and then found again! And often the finding again part is a very painful and repetitive process. Once you’ve climbed a “lesson mountain,” I think everyone can agree its best not to let your guard down and fall back down into the “valley of ignorance” again. Yet it happens over and over again, even by the most intelligent people.

    A lot of us today have shrugged off structured religion because it appears to have been made obsolete by modern science, technology and society. Yet, I think the value in it remains regardless of the details of the content because ultimately I think religion grew from a desire to hold these truths in conscious thought (which is limited,) you must keep reminding yourself of these things to keep them omnipresent in awareness or we fall asleep at the wheel… only to wake up again when our life has gone terribly off track. Unfortunately, too many religious people tend to focus more on the fact that their God has a different name than my God, and less on the fact they both say to love and respect your neighbor.

    • Mark says:

      I agree Steve.

      Spirituality without religion is better than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but there are elements of religion that need to be replaced, not just discarded.

      One of the legitimate functions of religion is to remind you of what you believe, so you can see the ways you are drifting; to remind you of lessons you have learned to save you from having to re-learn them. This is why my practice of watching the sunrise at the beach is a part of my own religious practice. It has a meditative component, but is generally a lot more a matter of reflecting on my current life and thinking things through from a perspective that is easier to get into when you repeat and reinforce that shift through some kind of ritual.

      Another feature of religion that we tend to inadequately replace is the fellowship of like-minded and like-hearted people. School and work teach us that we have no control over our social environment, and thus mask the necessity of exercising as much control over as much of our social life as we can.

      If an artist hangs out with people whose values tell them art is trivial, for example, it adds a great deal of unnecessary negative pressure. Peer pressure is unavoidable, but to the extent possible, you want to use peer pressure to help you become what you value.

      I guess I would say it is important to develop your religion in the service of your growth and spirituality whether you have any affinity with a religious organization or not. Find ways to harness the same technologies religions use, and put them to use for your own improvement.

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