WHAT IT TAKES
A Meditation on Resilience
Voices, 38,4: 2002
I am standing in the sparring circle of the dojo, exhausted. My breathing is ragged and
sweat pastes my clothes to my skin. I bow to Paul, my sensei, and we sit on the floor to talk.
Every last part of me hurts.
“Paul,” I say, “I’m not going to make it.”
Two months ago he nominated me for the rank of brown belt. I began preparing for the test, still three weeks off. It promises to be a grueling trial; brown belt in this school puts a heavy emphasis on the ability to endure, to show resilience under extreme stress. “In combat,” I am
reminded, “no one cares how tired you are.” My Marine Corps instructors used to say the same
thing. The spiritual dimension of this current endeavor leaves me no less drained.
I have tried to prepare. I’m the old man of the dojo, twice the age of the other two
students who will be examined with me. Even given my training over the last few years, how can I keep pace with them?
Paul has worked with me. He taught me a series of Chinese meditations and exercises designed to expand inner resilience, and I have practiced faithfully. I have run several miles each day. Every time I am in the dojo he has sparred with me, pushing me harder and longer than the time before.
It’s not working. I’m not ready and I can’t see how I will be ready. My body simply won’t
do it. Paul and I talk; to this day I have never consciously remembered what was said.
I go home that night discouraged, depressed and drowning in my own frustration. All this work and I feel stymied. I might as well quit. But I have to do this. I fall asleep feeling sorry for
myself, feeling like a victim.
Sometime during the night I awake, not slowly or sleepily but all of a sudden, like a cat. It is as if I am hearing my own voice. And the voice says to me, “Steve, you don’t have to do this.
It’s your choice, you know. You’re not compelled to take the test, or to strike for brown belt, or even to continue studying. You can stop if you want to, and be at peace with it. It’s your decision.
If you want to quit, then quit. But if you really want this, want it enough to do what it takes, then stop whining and get on with it.”
Stop whining and get on with it. Harsh words. But not beside the point. I fall back asleep.
My endurance actually tripled in the next few weeks. That ought to be biologically impossible.
How often do we say we want something but then find it forbidding? How often do we complain about the difficulty of our task? We weary; we are struck with adversity and can no longer bounce back.
Wanting is easy. I want all the time. The part of the question that I need to answer is not whether I want it, but whether I want it enough to do what it takes.
The nature of wanting becomes clearer when we bear in mind that we always have
choices. The judge has handed Elliott one last chance: if he doesn’t clean up his drug habit now, a lot of prison time awaits him. “Man,” he says, “This time I have to do it.” I hasten to remind
him that he doesn’t have to. He can choose prison instead. Many have made that choice, and it’s
Mike’s wife has laid down the law: one more affair on his part and she’s out of there. “I
can’t keep doing this,” Mike says. But he can. He may not like the consequences, but he can
have all the affairs he wants.
“I have to get my grades up.”
“I can’t loose weight – I get too hungry.”
“I want to learn this, but it’s just too hard.”
“I’ve been beaten; I can’t try any more.”
When I say these things, I am hedging my bets. I make myself a victim of circumstance. If I don’t get what I want it is because of someone or something other than me. I am helpless to
do anything about it. I can’t get this brown belt because I’m too old and my body just won’t do it.
Even under the most extreme circumstances, we are never entirely helpless. We are in control of at least some of our own responses. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl
presents the stunning vision of the individual entering the Nazi gas chambers, still faced with the choice of how he will die, whom he will choose to be in the moment of his extinction. Will I die screaming in panic? Will I comfort those beside me? Will I fight, hoping to take a guard with me? Or embrace the children? Or pray? Fortunately, few of our choices are that grim.
Am I saying, then, that everything is possible, that there are no limitations? By no means! Frankl’s individual has a choice of who he will be as he dies; he does not have the choice
whether or not to die. Being human means that we are limited, finite and mortal. Many of our ancient stories, from Adam and Eve in the Garden to the Tower at Babel to the flight of Icarus, warn us of the danger of thinking we can be like the gods. Humility is, for us, a sacred obligation.
Then what about choice? To gain some clarity on this, I borrow again from my dojo
experience. Long after the story related above, I was invited to test for my black belt. This was huge. And more than a bit intimidating. The intimidation was not so much in the difficulty as in the significance – this is a great responsibility in the martial arts world. When I began, I truly never expected to reach this point. After five years of training, meditation and practice, I had to ask myself what the black belt meant to me.
My answer was complex, and I won’t try to articulate it all. But one part of it will be
There is a common conception that a black belt is someone who can’t be beaten in a fight. But anyone can be beaten. There is always someone who is better than I am, or luckier. I may have an off day, or slip on a leaf, or be surprised by technique that I am not expecting. Or I may simply succumb to overwhelming force.
The black belt does not say that I can’t be beaten. What it is meant to say, I finally
understood, is that I will not be made to beat myself. You may defeat me, but I will not help you
When it is difficult to get what I want, when circumstances are conspiring to overpower me, I must ask: How badly do I want this? This is a factual question; it does not call for a judgment. I have every right to want it or not to want it, and no one can tell me I “should” desire or accomplish something. It is my privilege to be a book salesman instead of a surgeon, an underpaid schoolteacher rather than a wealthy executive. When I call someone “lazy,” I usually
mean that he does not want to work for what I think he should want. It leaves no room for him to value things differently than I do.
There is nothing I have to do. We would do well always to follow the phrase “have to…”
with “if I want…” I have to watch my diet if I want to stay healthy. Mike has to stop running around if he wishes to stay married. You must honor your contracts if you hope to avoid legal trouble. And I must be willing to strain every resource, and to bear the fatigue and pain involved, if I want that brown belt. When I think I have to do something that needs endurance and resilience, I would do well to ask why I “have to,” and to remain conscious that the choice is mine.