Essay: Tough

There are two types of toughness in people and I have encountered both types many times during my life. Most would describe these types of toughness as mental and physical, which I don’t necessarily disagree with, but what is interesting is the interplay between the two types.

When thinking about this, I envisage it as a matrix with four boxes – mentally weak, mentally strong, physically weak, physically strong. This is an over simplification, of course, as many degrees of mental and physical rigidity exist, but this framing helps in illustrating some interesting points. If one continues with this matrix one sees that four different combinations exist – mentally weak and physically weak, mentally weak and physically strong, mentally strong and physically weak, mentally strong and physically strong. Again, this is an oversimplification of any persons ability to deal with adversity, as circumstance and situation plays into how a person copes with the particular type of struggle they are exposed to.

For instance, if a person has to endure grueling physical hardship such as being lost in the mountains with a heavy backpack in cold and harsh conditions – physical toughness will act as a buffer and protect the mental state. I view this as two “health-bars” like the ones you have in video games. If your physical toughness bar reaches zero, you start to feed of you mental bar. In other words, your physical rigor and ability acts as a buffer and preserves your mental state. If your in shape, it takes longer before you have to rely on mental capacity and willpower to push yourself onward. Further, how quick your physical and mental bars are depleted depend on how you are situated in the matrix. If you are physically strong your bar depletes slower and if your weak it slides down faster.

To my experience people that hold both weak and strong extremities in the matrix at the same time is uncommon. I know they exist, but seemingly the people I know have varying degrees of a weak and strong combination. Again, remember that this is an oversimplification of peoples character and ability. When I did my compulsory military service in the army, I encountered the physically strong and mentally weak type often – and it is not pretty when their physical meter gets depleted. Seemingly, these guys never had to work off of their mental capacity, as they are naturally so strong and have such great endurance, that they never needed to feed of anything other than physical ability. This seems like a cliche from a Hollywood movie, but its a cliche for a reason.

However, what is much more interesting to observe is people who are the other way around – physically weak and mentally strong. One summer a friend of me and I was going for a four day hike in the mountains. The first day the weather was good and we made camp not about 10 kilometers from our initial point of departure. As spirits where high we drank all the booze and ate all the goodies the first night. This was not a problem as the plan was to stop by a tourist lodge to resupply the next day – we thought. When we woke up the next day the weather had turned sour and my friend, who was not really used to the mountains, did not have a rain coat, woolen socks or a beanie. Further, his sleeping bag was not insulated enough and he managed to come down with a pretty bad cold during the course of the day. I damned myself for not making sure he had what he need, but I did not want to act like a parent watching a kid.

On our way to the lodge my buddy’s physical bar was severely drained and I could see that he was struggling. His physical bar was at rock bottom when we reached the lodge, only to find that it was closed and we basically had no food left. My friend did not loose his temper and stayed composed although his physical bar was obviously drained and he was fueling himself of willpower. During the next two days he did not act out in desperation, although he was sick and hungry, and that is because he is mentally strong. His mental meter does not leak like a river, but rather like a slowly dripping broken tap.

I would much rather rely on a mentally strong person than a mentally weak one, no matter what their physical abilities might be. Seemingly, the mental has the ability to override the physical and therefore is more valuable in challenging situations. In my experience, when the going gets tough, the mentally strong gets going.