Friday, April 6, 2012

American Idle: Kennedy's challenge to "The Soft American"

It's April: Baseball season...and Boston Marathon season.

3 years ago, I realized a dream of running in the Boston Marathon. From hating running and the fits of asthma it induced as a kid (though I did prefer riding my bike), to barely running 3 miles in my 20s as a grad student, to slowly taking on the challenges of half marathons, and finally the marathon, it still took me 3 decades to finally learn that it's OK to through out preconceived notions of yourself, and your abilities, and that it's OK to try something hard.

Rather than dwelling on your own limitations from the past, it is far better to look above and around at others for examples of greatness, and bring that into yourself.

And so it was when J, Debbie, and I visited Boston 3 years ago, and decided to visit the JFK Library and Museum. In our current era of rancorous politics and shallow pandering to complicit simplicity, our Presidents from decades ago stand out as more reflective, erudite, and inspirational men. JFK himself looked at his surrounding men for greatness, and published the Pulitzer prize-winning Profiles in Courage biography in 1955.

5 years later, as I've just recently learned (from RT magazine), Kennedy published an excellentarticle in Sports Illustrated magazine, titled "The Soft American." In this, he challenged the declining physical vigor of the average American as a threat not only to military supremacy, but also workforce productivity, mental capacity and creativity, and the ability of the U.S. to continue to be a shining example of excellence:

For physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body; it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity. The relationship between the soundness of the body and the activities of the mind is subtle and complex. Much is not yet understood. But we do know what the Greeks knew: that intelligence and skill can only function at the peak of their capacity when the body is healthy and strong; that hardy spirits and tough minds usually inhabit sound bodies.

In this sense, physical fitness is the basis of all the activities of our society. And if our bodies grow soft and inactive, if we fail to encourage physical development and prowess, we will undermine our capacity for thought, for work and for the use of those skills vital to an expanding and complex America.

Thus the physical fitness of our citizens is a vital prerequisite to America's realization of its full potential as a nation, and to the opportunity of each individual citizen to make full and fruitful use of his capacities.

I put a sticker from the JFK museum on my race bib, where it accompanied from Hopkinton down into Boston.
Many ultrarunning fans are also familiar with JFK's challenges, in the form of the JFK 50-miler race in the Fall. But such challenges are not partisan, as they harken back to Teddy Roosevelt's challenge against a life of "slothful ease," in which he detailed his vision of "The Strenuous Life."

In speaking to you, men of the greatest city of the West, men of the State which gave to the country Lincoln and Grant, men who preeminently and distinctly embody all that is most American in the American character I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life. the life of toil and effort, of labor gold strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph .

Roosevelt walked this talk, even as a South-American explorer after his Presidency, and observed that, as we transitioned from an economy of hard, manual labor, our time could instead be filled with other pursuits of greatness:

[We] are all the more bound to carry on some kind of non-remunerative work in science, in letters, in art, in exploration, in historical research-work of the type we most need in this country, the successful carrying out of which reflects most honor upon the nation.

Both men considered physical activity important, but as a foundation of a complete, cultured, introspective life.

I am reminded of these challenges by great men, again in April, as the transition period between winter and summer. First, we are ending the traditional season of Lent, in which some people "give up" any marginally easy vice other than outward boastfulness for a few months; and we are also in the same month of TV turnoff week, in which Americans are challenged to avoid an expensive and mind-wasting voyeuristic medium for a mere 7 days. (Kennedy even gave this a mention in his essay, at a time when we had less than 1% of the TV channels now available).
Even the notion of being a "sports fan" -- which, with television, should be more aptly described as being a "fan of spectating" -- has a hollow feel when it comes to inspirational characters, whether it's drugs in baseball, drugs in cycling, or institutionalized assault in the NFL. Or, if reality TV is your thing, there's apparently nothing better for good family-values married folk to watch than vapid young people having making out, giving a rose to the best candidates before having sex with the final three, and then considering marriage.

Rather than inane chatter and gossip about what other people are doing -- famous people that are famous for being famous -- we should encourage and nurture those seeds of excellence within all of us.
Instead, let us consider this challenge: with electronic books, audiobooks, cheap shipping, and a fantastic library system, never before in history has true greatness and inspiration been right at our fingertips. This is an incredible time to pick up a book about some of the great men and women in history, and in some small part, try to be like them. Time to get outside our comfort zone and challenge ourselves, individually and collectively, to greatness.

1 comment:

  1. I remember the Presidential Fitness tests from school, which were started under Eisenhower and expanded under Kennedy. It did lend a certain noble aspect to just doing a bunch of chin-ups :)

    I think it's the case that many people impose limitations on themselves (myself included), but both trying new things and learning from the example of others may lead to places you never expected.

    Two small events led me to running and everything that came with it: my company participated in a 5k "run/walk" -- which I started out walking because "I'm not a runner" -- and second, I saw kids and grandmas running by, which I could not let go unanswered. Heh. You never know what small reach out will lead to big things.

    PS - Teddy Roosevelt had some adventures.