Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Some disorganotes on the will and willpower

I've been thinking a lot lately, in a completely disjointed way, about the will and willpower. It's something that's never too far from my mind: for twenty years I've been running every other day, almost without fail, and I'm still regularly astonished at the interaction between my will and my physical capacities. I'm just going to keep going, I tell myself, and unless I've been operating at the limits of my abilities for hours--near the end of a marathon, say--my body finds the reserves it needs to obey. The interplay between will and body is as mysterious, and rewarding, as almost anything I know.

Of course one of the reasons we care about sports is because of the hyper-focused lens they offer through which to think about the less clear-cut challenges we face in everyday life. Thus, some jottings on will in sports and elsewhere.

1 It started with Sergio De La Pava, whose stunning essay "A Day's Sail," on boxing and Virginia Woolf, published in Triple Canopy last year, is as much about will and determination as anything. That theme also comes through in A Naked Singularity, taking its most explicit form in the interpolated essay on the career of Colombian boxer Wilfred Benitez. In an interview for the blog of Elliott Bay Books in Seattle De La Pava explained why he's drawn to boxing:
Boxing, when functioning properly, is the best vehicle I know of for the mass representation of a particular human’s naked will; what we gain from that is the result of extrapolation, because we need previews of what happens when your flimsy trappings melt away and it’s just you against unfeeling constants.
In "A Day's Sail," De La Pava broadens that point:
If we’re to then talk about greatness in relation to this pursuit we’ll have to make a perhaps counterintuitive distinction right at the outset. Bach, Gould, Tolstoy, Woolf, are giants so we rightly turn to their work to experience greatness in their fields. Not generally so in boxing. A partial list of the pursuit’s giants is something like Louis, Robinson, Ali, Duran, and Armstrong. All brilliant, all have signature moments, but with the exception of Ali’s “Thrilla in Manila” none can match moments produced by far lesser personages. The reason is that two individuals in a boxing ring are fighting, and greatness there seems less a product of skill and talent than of concepts like will and tenacity—precisely the attributes you’ll need, not skillful intelligence, if diagnosed with cancer for example.
2 The summer I was twenty-three and first working in a Stateside bookstore, the first job I'd ever had that didn't have a definite end point--graduation, expiring work permit, etc.--I played a lot of basketball. Probably four nights a week I was out on the court, sometimes with friends, sometimes with strangers. Up that point, I'd barely played basketball at all. And I wasn't good at it, by any means. I'm short, first of all, and, second, while it's amazing what a lot of practice can do, you're never going to be skilled at a sport as difficult as basketball if you don't really start playing until your twenties.

But I loved it--and what I loved was exactly what De La Pava's saying about boxing above: more than any other team sport I'd played, it was about willpower and tenacity. I couldn't shoot, could barely dribble, but despite my height I could guard and was a strong rebounder--solely because I was unwilling to give up, unwilling to give ground, unwilling to stop working. Even now, when I don't really play any more, I get viscerally excited when I watch the pros playing great defense. They're so much better than me and anyone I played with that they might as well be playing a wholly different sport--but nonetheless there's a look in their eyes that's familiar, and thrilling.

Tom Ley wrote well about willpower and basketball for Deadspin the other day in an article about how Rajan Rondo was almost singlehandedly keeping the Celtics alive--despite being far from the best player on the floor. Ley writes,
Fans and writers love to talk about players "rising to the moment" or playing their best when the "lights are brightest." All of that talk us is usually bullshit. Nobody really has any idea what's going on inside the mind of an NBA player during the course of a game. Whether he is embracing the moment or scared shitless is hardly ever discernible.
And then he goes on to tell about a moment in the previous night's game where Rondo, facing down the best player since Jordan, made clear what was in his mind--and that it was all fight:
[H]e found himself defending LeBron James at the top of the three-point line as the fourth quarter was coming to an end, score tied at 99. Rondo stared James down and screamed, "Let's do it!" at him.
Willpower = swagger = the Celtics are still alive. Man, I love sports. It's worth clicking through to Deadspin to watch the clip of that moment--the look in Rondo's eyes is indescribable.

3 On the non-sports front, I keep thinking of LBJ. In the second volume of his four-and-counting-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro focuses on the 1948 Senate race. Early on, Caro reminds us of what LBJ drummed into his assistants:
If you do everything, you'll win.
In the 1948 campaign, that meant staying on the trail for weeks while suffering what ought to have been debilitating pain from kidney stones, shaking hand after hand despite his own being cracked and bleeding, and maintaining a schedule that wore out assistant after assistant. Writes Caro,
Dorothy Nichols was to be asked what she remembered about the 1948 campaign. "Three hours of sleep," she would reply. Three hours of sleep--or less.
Johnson slept even less:
Even when he was supposed to be resting, they came to realize, he wasn't. At the noon rest stop, Lyndon Johnson would indeed get into bed. But when someone came to waken him after an hour or so, he would almost invariably be awake--awake and ready with a long list of things to be done, things he had thought of during the hour. He had been "on the phone the whole time," Mrs. Nichols would say, or "he had somebody--local people or somebody on the staff--in there planning."
Aide Ed Clark put LBJ's relentless drive in perspective:
"I never saw anyone campaign as hard as [Johnson had in his 1937 campaign.] I never thought it was possible for a man to work that hard." If that campaign had been Johnson's main chance, this campaign, the 1948 campaign, might be his last chance. Was 1937 the hardest Lyndon Johnson ever worked? Ed Clark would be asked. "Oh, no," Clark said. "In 1948, he worked harder."
There is a lot about LBJ to dislike and disapprove of, and Caro's impressively nuanced portrait doesn't stint on revealing it. But his tenacity and willpower remain awe-inspiring--and just plain inspiring--throughout.

4 And finally to novels. I know of no authors who write better about physical exhaustion, and our ability to will ourselves beyond it, than Stephen King and Dorothy Dunnett. In book after book, their heroes are battered and bloodied and driven to exhaustion, but at the moment when the temptation to give up is greatest, they choose to fight on.

In King Hereafter Dunnett writes of a worn-out King Thorfinn's response to hearing that the day's battle has gone terribly against him:
To weep would solve nothing, or to fall into panic, or to obey the heave of the belly, the sudden gripe of the bowel, that came not only to messnegers.

But above belly and bowel was a controlling head.
Later, in a break in the battle, he pauses:
In action, you felt almost no pain at all. Out of action, you did.
And wounded, he fights on and leads his men on, beyond weariness, trying to protect his kingdom and his family.

King's heroes tend to be ordinary people thrust into horrors, Dunnett's extraordinary men driving themselves beyond exhaustion as they take on responsibility for the lives and safety of everyone who comes into their orbit. King aims to shock and surprise and terrify, Dunnett to entertain--but underlying the work of both writers is a simple but powerful theme: the body, damaged and broken as it may be, takes orders from the mind--and so long as those orders are to keep fighting, you haven't lost yet.

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