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.