Natural Born Heroes
How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance – by Christopher McDougall (2015) [author of Born to Run]
For much of human history, the art of the hero wasn’t left up to chance; it was a multidisciplinary endeavour devoted to optimal nutrition, physical self-mastery, and mental-conditioning. The hero’s skills were studied, practiced, and perfected; then passed along from parent to child and teacher to student. The art of the hero wasn’t about being brave; it was a bout being so competent that bravery wasn’t an issue. You weren’t supposed to go down for a good cause; the goal was to figure out a way not to go down at all. Achilles and Odysseus and the rest of the classical heroes hated the thought of dying and scratched for every second of life. A hero’s crack at immortality was to be remembered as a champion, and champions don’t die dumb.
It all hinged on the ability to unleash the tremendous resources of strength, endurance, and agility that many people don’t realize they already have.
Heroes don’t bulk up on muscle; instead they relied on the lean, efficient force of their fascia, the powerful connective tissue that is like your body’s rubber band. Bruce Lee became so adept at harnessing the power of his fascia that he perfected a one-inch punch, a blow from a barely moving fist that could send a man twice his size sailing across the room. Fascial power is an egalitarian and almost undepleteable resource.
Heroes had to be masters of the unpredictable. They trained their amygdalae by practicing “natural movement,” which used to be the only kind of movement we knew. Just to survive, humans had to be able to flow across the landscape, bending their bodies over and around any obstacle in their path, leaping without fear and landing with precision. Back in the early 1900s, a French naval officer named George Hébert dedicated himself to the study of natural movement; he watched the way children play—running, and climbing and tussling around—and began to appreciate the importance of spontaneity and improvisation. When Hébert’s natural movement disciples were later tested for strength, speed, agility, they scored on par with world-class decathletes.
That’s why the Greeks didn’t wait for heroes to appear; they built their own instead. They perfected a hero’s diet, which curbs hunger, boosts power, and converts body fat into performance fuel. They developed techniques for controlling fear and adrenaline surges, and they learned to tap into the remarkable hidden strength of the body’s elastic tissue, which is far more powerful and effective than muscle. More than two thousand years ago, they got serious about the business of releasing the hero inside us all. And then they were gone.
A middle school teacher in San Antonio Texas named Rick Riordan began thinking about the troublesome kids in his class. Maybe the wild ones weren’t hyperactive; maybe they were misplaced heroes. After all, in another era the same behaviour that is now throttled with Ritalin and disciplinary rap sheets would have been the mark of greatness, the early blooming of a true champion? What if strong, assertive children were redirected rather than discouraged? What if there were a place for them, an outdoor training camp where they could cut loose with all those natural instincts to run, wrestle, climb, swim, and explore? You’d call it Camp Half-Blood, Riordan decided, because that’s what we really are—half animal and half higher being, halfway between each and unsure how to keep them in balance. Riordan began writing, creating a troubled kid from a broken home named Percy Jackson who arrives at a camp in the woods and is transformed when the Olympian he has inside is revealed, honed, and guided.
Churchill recruited poets, professors, archeologists and other oddballs to his Special Operations Executive, though the military said they weren’t commandos but calamities…bullied at school, pelted with cricket balls, beaten and ridiculed, humiliated to the point of hiding in nearby woods, Churchill transformed himself over time. If he could do it, so could his fellow misfits. And his misfits believed him—because some of them had already seen a real superhero in the flesh. All they had to do was look out the window and wait for Thomas Edward Lawrence—winner of dagger fights, conqueror of evildoers, chieftain of desert bandits—to come roaring across the Dorset countryside on his big Brough Superior motorcycle. Lawrence of Arabia was more than their idol; he was their evolutionary road map, a guide to the transformation he’d followed from “them” into “him.” …out there in the wilderness, Lawrence had learned a secret. He’d gone back in time, to a place where heroes weren’t a different breed—they just had different breeding. They were ordinary people who’d mastered extraordinary skills, who’d found that by tapping into a certain body of primal knowledge, they could perform with remarkable amounts of stamina, strength, nerve, cunning. To be a hero, you had to learn how to think, run, fight, and talk—even eat, sleep, and crawl—like a hero. If Lawrence of Arabia could learn the art of the hero, so could they, so could you.
“The right person in the right place is a devastating weapon.”
—Motto of the US Special Forces
(More on natural born heroes next week…)