This was the response Teddy Roosevelt had for his dad as a young kid crippled with asthma. After a childhood of miserable breathing attacks, young Roosevelt took up his father’s offer to train his body to strength and overcome his weakness. The Obstacle is the Way, written by Ryan Holiday, says that “We craft our spiritual strength through physical exercise, and our physical hardiness through mental practice” (136).
It turns out that physical training also strengthened Roosevelt’s spirit. He developed the inner grit to face the obstacles of family deaths and wars. And he exercised every day through it all.
I’ve always known that exercise and physical training shaped the spirit. I just never really had the guts to say it. Hard physical training, running, doing drills, and lifting weights to the limits of the body, fatigues and builds the body. However, go deep enough, let the level of difficulty get hard enough, and you find that your spirit is tested. There’s no measure of this. It’s simply a matter of whether you will stand the pain and hardship, the burning muscles, the aching lungs, the heat, the cold, the impacts, whatever the pain may be, and whether you will continue to push ahead. It’s a matter of whether you will return for another day of training after that. This tests your spirit.
I don’t mean spirit as a separate ghostly entity contained within our minds or bodies or hovering around somewhere in another dimension. I mean spirit as the strength of the will, the determination to do, the absolute resolve we have to move forward through fear and pain. And I do think that physical training can show you your spirit, and it can bring it to life, and maybe even make it stronger.
I say “maybe” because there is also the factor of the mind. The second part of this phrase in Holiday’s book says we build “our physical hardiness through mental practice.” No matter how much weight I can lift, no matter how fast I can run, if I don’t want to do something tough, I won’t and thus I can’t do it.
Training every day with the kettlebell keeps my body lean and strong. This is only possible to do with the mindset that I will train every day. The physical training itself does not build my resolve to train every day. Actually, it makes me not want to train. It’s hard, it makes me sweat, it makes me use up a lot of energy, and I have to be out in the cold in the dark. Only the mindset that this is good for me allows me to cherish all of these “painful” things. Because I have set my will do exercise like this every morning, I have done it. And because I’ve been doing it, I see the strength of body and spirit I am developing. This is rewarding, and then of course the rest of it becomes fun. I savor the sweet, cold air in my nostrils and lungs. It cools me down after each set of swings. My feet have come to be fond of the biting cold ground. It’s a wonderful texture to work against to keep balance and exert maximal force.
I don’t feel sorry for myself when it’s raining outside. I love it. When I step out of my office into the night, I am comfortable with the dark and the cold. I can walk or run for block after block for the train station, and I’m not bothered that my lungs burn or I sweat or that I am panting. I love it, because it’s a great capability I have to be able to move fast and hard.
This chapter in the book is called “Build your inner citadel”. What a great lesson in life, that physical training is connected to spiritual strength and that mind training enables physical strength.