You’re going to get your ass kicked

You’re going to get your ass kicked, no matter what you do. I know this. I’m sure you know this. And yet… it’s amazing how often I have to be reminded of this basic truth about human life.

If I had all the money, I would design an app that popped up with a message every two hours saying: ‘You will get your ass kicked.’ And then a second sentence saying: ‘You will survive. Do it anyway.’

Do you think about this? That no matter whether you take risks or play if safe you will still feel hurt and lonely and scared sometimes?

The psychologist and writer Brené Brown reminded me of this dilemma in a talk she did for 99u. She quotes Theodore Roosevelt: ‘It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.’

In fact, it was this quote that led Brown to name her book Daring Greatly. In her talk for 99u, she is focusing on bravery in art and encouraging her creative audience to set aside the critical voices, both external and internal. They may tell you something useful…or not. Either way, they will always be there, through failure and success.

Roosevelt is urging Americans to throw themselves into public service and a ‘worthy cause’. Both him and Brown are asking us to concentrate on action over and above speech. Roosevelt is also famous for saying, ‘Rhetoric is a poor substitute for action, and we have trusted only to rhetoric. If we are really to be a great nation, we must not merely talk; we must act big.’ Words are cheap he suggests, which is a useful mantra when judgement and criticism are essential parts of our society. Participating means leaving yourself open to criticism, from others AND from yourself, of course.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Theodore Roosevelt

Both are also asking us to choose action over inaction. Roosevelt and Brown insist that throwing yourself into the fray and taking part is worth more than standing back. That will make sense to you if you’ve ever chosen NOT to do something and regretted it. What have you really got to lose? If you play it safe you feel regret AND you worry just as much. 

What I find difficult and confusing in this idea of participation and bravery however is that often it feels like you’re balancing on the ropes, half in half out. You don’t always know if you are being brave or participating or making the wiser choice.

Not to mention that most of the time it feels like opportunities for bravery are few and far between. Most of the time it seems like your whole life is one long act of bravery, or the opposite, one long act of mundanity. 

It’s not a clear cut thing Teddy and Brené. 

For example, starting a romantic relationship with someone younger than you. You really like them, they really like you. You work well together. BUT will the age difference eventually create situations where a happy middle ground is impossible to find? Or what about quitting your job and starting a business? Which is braver? Staying in the job you have been dedicated to and have been improving in? Or leaving to try something different with higher stakes- it could win big, it could lose big?

…Is it a clear cut thing Teddy and Brené?

I know the simple glaringly obvious answer- you will never know if you’ve made the right decisions. You can but try. We all know this (I hope… otherwise you have bigger problems) but do we really feel it regularly when our lives are mostly quite quotidian?

In the scenario that Brown and Roosevelt depict, the world is divided into two main groups: those who understand this and get their hands dirty in an effort to be good humans and those who understand it and remain critics on the sidelines. I think the core message of this analogy is, ‘get involved, we are all going to die’. It’s a reminder of our mortality and a call to arms that although we are one of many, we can have an impact.

I agree with this message. Essentially it’s what Rhys Darby’s character says in the strange third episode of X Files Season 10: ‘This sounds weird but… until a few days ago I didn’t know we die. I mean, I always knew we could die. I instinctively knew to avoid death. But what I didn’t know was that, no matter what you do…eventually you end up in a place like this.’ He’s stood in a cemetery. 

Brown, Roosevelt and a huge array of thinkers and writers and speakers have been telling us this for thousands of years: you are going to die, don’t be scared, you are going to die.

On a daily basis though…

it’s hard to KEEP thinking ‘I’m going to DIE! SEIZE THE DAY!’

And often that kind of ‘live like you’re going to die tomorrow’ way of thinking doesn’t help. What if you don’t die tomorrow…now you’ve given away all of your favourite books as mementos and eaten an entire chocolate cheesecake.

So maybe we need a ‘Get Your Ass Kicked’ app for the moments that clearly require bravery and a thick skin.

But we also need an app, or something, for all the other longer, duller moments when we are still ‘in the arena’, still working hard on a ‘worthy cause’ but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like we’re contemplating a snack rather than working, or fixing an Excel spreadsheet rather than performing ground breaking surgery, or making a boat* out of Lego (*it’s a rectangle of Lego, everything is always a rectangle of Lego) rather than performing at Coachella. 

Looking around you to see who and what you care about and who and what cares about you can help. You may wear the same three outfits 90% of the time or have the same routines every weekday but if you have people around you that matter to you then you are probably doing okay on the participation front.

Other than that, I admit… I’m not sure. What criteria can I use to know if I am really ‘throwing myself into the fray’? 

Do you feel like you are throwing yourself into the fray? When do you feel like that?? Do you have any advice?

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