If you’ve been involved in natural training in the last few years, you’ve probably heard the advice “Be strong to be useful.” According to legend, the phrase was coined by French physical educator Georges Hébert (1875-1957) and has become a popular inspiration for Parkour, MovNat and other natural training systems.
Obviously, this is a good thing. It’s a pro-social, activist orientation that’s a big step up from self-centered training programs. The beauty of this perspective is that it gives us a sense of purpose and meaning. We’re training hard and staying healthy, not just to enhance our own welfare, but to improve the lot of our communities
But while this “be strong to be useful” philosophy sounds appealing, it also seems clear that we haven’t really given the matter a whole lot of thought. After all, if we’re really interested in being useful, we might be inclined to wonder exactly what skills and capabilities would be most relevant for the real world.
One example that makes the rounds goes like this: “If there’s a burning building in your neighborhood, a physically strong person would be able to go in and save the occupants.” This of course, is useful. But how many burning buildings are you likely to encounter in a lifetime? And why this bias towards strength? We might just as well say: “Be endurant to be useful.” Or “Be graceful to be useful.” Or, “Be intelligent to be useful.”
And arguably, in a radically interconnected world on the verge of ecological collapse, the most useful skills aren’t athletic at all. If you really want to make a difference on the pressing issues of our day, the really useful skills are political organizing, legislation, social media, writing and public speaking.
This is not to suggest that we give up our interest in movement and training. On the contrary, vigorous movement is what keeps our minds and bodies alive and ready to engage. But it does mean that we’ve got to think about context and shape our efforts to meet the challenges of the day.
The blunt force fact is that we are now in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. Not only is our planet afflicted by a multi-layered set of wicked challenges, our country is currently being led by a mean-spirited adolescent with no idea of what he’s doing. To say that he in unqualified doesn’t even begin to describe it. This is a man with no sense of history, an ecological illiterate who stands poised to push the biosphere over the edge. His authoritarian tendencies are bad enough, but what really puts us in danger is his delusional sense of isolationism. Apparently, he believes that America can simply survive on its own without a relationship with the rest of the planet. This is beyond dangerous.
In this kind of context, the ability to stick a precision jump, lift a particular amount of weight or win a championship seems very close to being irrelevant. Yes, it’s important to maintain our physicality and our vitality in whatever way we can. But by themselves, these practices are also isolationist and disconnected.
In large measure, today’s health and fitness industry is failing to answer the call to relevance. A common refrain goes “I’m really into health, but I’m just not into politics.” But this philosophy fails. In fact, our physical and mental health is massively determined by environmental and social forces that lie outside the body. In other words, the state of the world matters. There can be no stand-alone bodies or stand-alone health. Like it or not, the process is always political.
The planet is in peril and yet we double down on our sports and health practices. Even people who are already fit and healthy are reinvesting only in themselves. In the process, our industry is starting to look like a bad cartoon. We’re up on the top deck of the Titanic, pumping our bodies and mastering our skills when what we really ought to be doing is running up to the wheelhouse and demanding that the captain turn the ship. Or better yet, find a captain who knows what he’s doing.
The iceberg is looming.
What are you going to do about it?