Thursday, September 7, 2017

Mental Toughness

What is mental toughness? There is no simple answer and indeed there is not even just one answer. Pondering this question sent my mind racing in many directions, but one recurring thought/memory is Michael Jordan's "What is Love?" commercial. Jordan concluded, "Love is playing every game as if it's your last." Jordan never took games or even plays off, because he knew that there might be someone in the stands who had never seen him play and he wanted that person to see him at his very best.

To me, that video is a powerful testament to the intense devotion required to become the greatest practitioner of your craft (whether or not you believe Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever is not the point; he displayed the focus and the traits that are essential to challenge for that number one spot). Watching that video still evokes strong feelings in me--but my Mom was unmoved the first time she saw it. "That's not what love is," she declared. She says that love is about human relationships--about caring so much about another person that you sacrifice to make that person happy, to make that person's life better. My Mom felt that the commercial was about winning a game and winning a game is not what defines love to her.

Both perspectives are valid. Jordan's video is a testament to one kind of love but my Mom is correct that there are other kinds of love as well: parent-child, husband-wife, sibling-sibling. The Jordan commercial does not deny other kinds of love or minimize the importance of human relationships; it speaks to the power of love to inspire a person to achieve greatness.

So, what is love? Love means different things in different contexts.

What is mental toughness? Mental toughness is not defined/proven by fame or glory. I recently heard a broadcaster extolling the mental toughness that Emmitt Smith once displayed when he led the Dallas Cowboys to victory despite having a separated shoulder--and there is no doubt that this took great mental toughness. But is Smith tougher than my Grandma Ida, who fought cancer for almost five years and who never lost her optimism and her zest for life even as the cancer drained the life out of her body?

Mental toughness is doing what has to be done--doing the right thing, the life-affirming thing--no matter the odds.

Life can be bitterly cruel. It is easy to complain or to give up but perhaps it is helpful to understand that life is not only about "winning" but also about personal growth. Alexander Solzhenitsyn survived being imprisoned--buried alive might be a more accurate description--in what he later called the Gulag Archipelago but he did not curse his fate or those who oppressed him. Instead, he said, "Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul."

Mental toughness is facing down a totalitarian regime bent on destroying individuality and individuals. Solzhenitsyn did this and his writings lay bare the horrors of living under Communist rule and the flaws inherent in building a society around the Communist philosophy. Later, Natan Sharansky was arrested by the Soviet government, convicted on trumped up charges of being a spy and sentenced to 13 years in prison, including solitary confinement and hard labor; the Communist regime literally and figuratively sought to bury Sharansky alive in a hole so deep that he would be mentally, psychologically and physically destroyed. Instead, after he was sentenced he defiantly declared, "To the court I have nothing to say--to my wife and the Jewish people I say 'Next Year in Jerusalem.'"

Sharansky, a master level chess player, played chess games against himself to maintain his sanity when he was in solitary confinement. After nine years, the Soviets finally set him free in an exchange of prisoners in Berlin. Sharansky's Soviet tormentors ordered him to walk straight across a bridge, but instead Sharansky defiantly marched to freedom in zig zag fashion. Sharansky later recalled what his Communist captors had first told him when he arrived in prison: "This is the end of the Zionist movement and you will never get out alive." Instead, the Berlin Wall fell just a few years after Sharansky zig zagged his way to freedom in that city and, as Sharansky said with justifiable pride, "There is no KGB, there is no communism and more than a million former Soviet Jews are free and in Israel. It is a very triumphant feeling."

Mental toughness is maintaining sanity despite having a brain that is wired so differently than other people's brains that one is perceived to be--and may feel like--an alien. Alexander Grothendieck has been called the greatest mathematician of the 20th century but he spent his last years in seclusion, unwilling or unable to function in society the way that people are expected to function.

"My first impression was that he had been transported from an advanced alien civilization in order to speed up our intellectual evolution," Marvin Jay Greenberg, professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said about meeting Grothendieck during Grothendieck's prime.

According to Kaja Perina (in an article published in the July/August 2017 issue of Psychology Today), "Thinking styles lie on a continuum. On one end is mechanistic, rule-based thinking, which is epitomized in minds that gravitate to math, science, engineering, and tech-heavy skill-sets. Mechanistic cognition is bottom-up, concerned with the laws of nature and with objects as they exist in the world, and stands in contrast to mentalistic thinking. Mentalistic cognition exists to decode and engage with the minds of others, both interpersonally and in terms of larger social forces. It is more holistic (top-down) and humanistic, concerned, broadly speaking, with people, not with things. This mind-set makes loose, sometimes self-referential inferences about reality. If  'hypermentalistic,' too much meaning will be ascribed to events: All coincidences are meaningful and all events are interconnected."

Perina argues that, in this view of thinking styles, autism is an extreme form of mechanistic thinking, while extreme mentalistic thinking is typified by "psychotic disorders, characterized by false beliefs in the sentience of inanimate objects and delusions about the self and others."

In other words, the racing thoughts and the ability to see/make unusual mental connections that made Grothendieck a mathematical genius also pushed him to the brink of insanity (at least in terms of how insanity is defined by the majority of people who consider themselves sane and who run the world on a day to day basis).

Being a genius might sound like fun in theory but living day to day in this world as a genius is a major challenge. Frank Herbert's depiction of Alia in Dune--and how her pre-birth exposure to all of the collective wisdom of her ancestors made her both powerful and an "abomination"--is a very apt metaphor for the struggle a genius faces in controlling/managing the thoughts/wisdom/visions that bless (or afflict) at all hours of day and night.

You may think that Grothendieck was weak because he withdrew from society--but I think that he actually showed a kind of mental toughness that most people will never understand or appreciate. He made immense contributions to society while battling against the way that his mind functioned. It could be argued that World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer faced a similar inner struggle and that Fischer also made immense contributions to the art and science of chess before he too found it necessary to seclude himself from the world.

What is mental toughness? Sometimes, just surviving day to day requires tremendous mental toughness, depending on the internal and external circumstances that a person faces.

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