1: Theodore Roosevelt spent almost every day of his childhood fighting severe asthma.
“Despite his privileged birth, his life hung in a precarious balance—the attacks were an almost nightly near-death experience,” writes Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. “Tall, gangly, and frail, the slightest exertion would upset the entire balance and leave him bedridden for weeks.”
When he was twelve, his father told him, “Theodore, you have the mind but haven’t got the body. I’m giving you the tools to make your body. It’s going to be hard drudgery, and I think you have the determination to go through with it.”
Teddy’s response? He looked his father in the eye and said, “I’ll make my body.”
Every day for the next five years, Teddy worked out fiercely in the gym his father built for him on the second-floor porch. He slowly built muscle and strengthened his upper body against his weak lungs. “By his early twenties the battle against asthma was essentially over, he’d worked—almost literally—that weakness out of his body,” writes Ryan.
Teddy faced many difficulties in his life.
“He lost a wife and his mother in rapid succession, he faced powerful, entrenched political enemies who despised his progressive agenda, was dealt defeat in elections, the nation was embroiled in foreign wars, and he survived nearly fatal assassination attempts,” Ryan notes. “But he was equipped for it all because of his early training and because he kept at it every single day.”
Life is hard. And then things get worse.
The danger? “We assume that the way we’re born is the way we simply are, that our disadvantages are permanent. And then we atrophy from there,” Ryan observes. “That’s not necessarily the best recipe for the difficulties of life.”
2: There is a better way. We can remake our bodies and our minds. We can actively prepare for the hard road ahead. Do we hope we never have to walk it? Of course. But we’re ready for what comes.
“Nobody is born with a steel backbone,” writes Ryan. “We have to forge that ourselves.”
Lessons from history abound.
“It is said of the Jews, deprived of a stable homeland for so long, their temples destroyed, and their communities in the Diaspora, that they were forced to rebuild not physically but within their minds,” Ryan writes. “The temple became a metaphysical one, located independently in the mind of every believer. Each one—wherever they’d been dispersed around the world, whatever persecution or hardship they faced–could draw upon it for strength and security.”
During Passover each year, they eat “bitter herbs and unleavened bread—the ‘bread of affliction,'” Ryan notes. “Why? In some ways, this taps into the fortitude that sustained the community for generations. The ritual not only celebrates and honors Jewish traditions but also prompts those partaking in the feast to visualize and possess the strength that has kept them going.”
Their approach is notably similar to what the Stoic philosophers call the Inner Citadel, “that fortress inside of us that no external adversity can ever break down,” Ryan writes.
“An important caveat is that we are not born with such a structure; it must be built and actively reinforced. During the good times, we strengthen ourselves and our bodies so that during the difficult times, we can depend on it. We protect our inner fortress so it may protect us.”
3: Teddy Roosevelt saw life as an arena. He was a gladiator. To survive and thrive, he knew he must be “strong, resilient, fearless, ready for anything. And he was willing to risk great personal harm and expend massive amounts of energy to develop that hardiness,” Ryan observes.
What’s our strategy for life? Ryan tells us we’ll do far better toughening ourselves up than trying “to take the teeth out of a world that is—at best—indifferent to our existence.”
Teddy’s story inspires us because none of us are born gladiators. Just like no one is born with an Inner Citadel.
“If we’re going to succeed in achieving our goals despite the obstacles that may come,” writes Ryan, “this strength in will must be built.”
How do we strengthen an arch? We put weight on it because the heaviness holds the stones together.
Ryan asks us: Are we okay being alone? Are we strong enough to go a few more rounds if it comes to that? Are we comfortable with challenges? Does uncertainty bother us? How does pressure feel?
“Because these things will happen to us. No one knows when or how, but their appearance is certain. And life will demand an answer.”
We chose a life of doing things. Now we need to prepare for all that entails.
Reflection: What am I doing to build a strong mind and body? What could I do?
Action: Make 2023 the year of those things.