This column first appeared in Malta Today
Let me make it clear that I have nothing but admiration for those who take on tough physical challenges such as the latest trend, the Grid. Even hearing what is involved in the training makes me want to go and lie down to take a nap.
It did occur to me, however, as I saw the photos of them scrambling through the obstacles, swing from the monkey bars and climbing the walls, that we human beings have become so ‘soft’ because of the cushioned comforts of our daily lives, that we have had to recreate certain adverse conditions which our forefathers used to come up against as a matter of course.
Let’s face it, you would hardly expect someone like a construction worker, who breaks his back every day doing manual labour in order to earn his livelihood, to go do the Grid just “for fun”. The same goes for marathons, triathlons and other gruelling challenges. Those with office jobs, however, are feeling this need more and more – to test themselves by pushing themselves to the limit in order to prove that they can.
Our descent into softness can be seen in simple things like stairs; most apartment blocks and office buildings these days have lifts, but then we enroll in step classes in order to recreate walking up steps as part of our exercise routine. Perhaps the greatest irony is that of people stuck in snarling traffic, sitting in their cars for hours in order to park in an underground carpark to take a lift and go the gym where they have paid membership…in order to work up a sweat as they walk/run on a treadmill and cycle on a stationary bike.
Something intrinsic in human nature knows that we were not designed to be sedentary, stuck to our office chairs, sofas and armchairs for hours on end in front of laptops, flat screens, PlayStations and Netflix. We were designed to move about and it is no accident that when we don’t move enough and use up extra energy our bodies have a way of ‘voicing their protest’, either in the form of chronic pain and stiff joints, medical conditions and worst of all, obesity – the sure sign that we are ingesting more calories than we could possibly burn off.
It has also occurred to me that the repressed cauldron of aggression which often manifests itself in such incidents as football hooliganism, road rage and bouncers who kick the crap out of nightclub patrons can be attributed to some primal instinct which has not been channelled into anything else and which needs an outlet. Of course, I am not justifying the violence but we cannot deny its existence. There is a lot of bottled up angry energy out there.
Maybe in the past men (because it is mostly men) found a way to express their pent-up rage by going to war (in fact the Grid is loosely based on the boot camps which army recruits have to go through). But today many seek other ways in which to defuse the stress which accumulates in our social interactions. We need to keep our aggro under wraps in most cases when we are dealing with family, friends and colleagues, because that is what social norms dictate. When we don’t, we are labelled as difficult, not team players and trouble makers. In its worst forms, the person who cannot function the way society expects him to either turns the anxiety onto himself through self-harm and various forms of addiction, or else in the absolute worst case scenarios, he snaps, picks up a gun where they are easily available and inflicts the pain on others.
It is for this reason that I think new variations of traditional sports have become so popular. In cage fighting or MMA (Mixed Martial Arts), for example, they use a cage in the form of an octagon and games are held under a league known as UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship). The fighters use various techniques to physically over power their opponent such as boxing, Muay Tai, Karate, Taekwondo and Kick Boxing. There is something very primitive about the whole thing which clearly has a certain appeal.
Then there are the extreme sports which are almost like death defying exploits because of their high speed and high risk. It seems that some people need the challenge, the thrills, and the exhilaration of almost getting killed to quench whatever it is that burns inside them. In other eras, this need was fulfilled because every day was a challenge to survive. Today, unless you count getting into our “armour” (our cars) to battle the daily monster of traffic, our days are pretty humdrum. For those who have desk jobs the routine is predictable: we leave our air conditioned homes, get into our air conditioned cars to go sit in our air conditioned offices where we speak and interact virtually with others all day long using our machines (computers) until it is time to go home.
The stress many of us have does not come from physical exertion but from our internalised conflict and pressures as we try to maintain the flow of money needed for our lifestyles while juggling the demands made on us, starting from the demands by our employer and finishing at the end of the day at home with the demands from our families.
This also probably goes to explain why the biggest box office hits in movie theatres are invariably those featuring super heroes and a high level of violence and destruction. For an hour or two, in their imagination, people can escape and pretend to be fearless, tough and strong, even though in their ordinary lives they are pretty much living a soft and buffered existence.