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Starting Strength in the Real World

Confronting Meaninglessness: Become the Mammal You Were Born to Be

by Daniel Oakes | August 18, 2020

getting inside your skull

For as long as I can remember I was afflicted by what I would best describe as despairing boredom. I often leaped from meaningless task to meaningless task while reflecting upon the fact that one day the Sun will engulf the Earth, and everything our species loved and held dear (I'm deploying the past tense here because by the time the Sun engulfs the Earth, “we” – if “we're” still around – probably won't even be recognizably human) will disappear into the black abyss. Everything can seem overwhelmingly pointless.

This is where I think Starting Strength makes a difference and can help anyone with similar existential feelings.

Starting Strength is similar in tone and logic to the writing of Christopher Hitchens, in that the author brutally emphasizes that we are merely mammals which have basic mammalian requirements that are essential for human flourishing. Rip bluntly tells us what any extremely expensive health professional would tell you to do (they've told me to do): eat good food, sleep, and exercise. Incidentally, Hitchens warns us of the limitations of “experts” and asks us to “picture them as mammals.”

When writers like Rip and Hitch remind me of my mammalian requirements and limitations, I'm reminded to knock myself down a peg or two and focus my attention on proximate or local meaning rather than “The Big Questions.” In therapy they famously say that you wouldn't tell an injured child that in ten million years the pain won't matter; “meaning” is more local in this case, and in more cases than most of us realize. Starting Strength encompasses the exact meaning of “our continued physical existence”: Strength. Get strong, and everything must inevitably take care of itself.

Before beginning Starting Strength I was the lazy despairing nihilist who thought picking up two 45lb plates and putting them on a barbell and then squatting them to just below parallel for five grinding repetitions seemed like the total inversion of meaning. But something happened when I forced myself to repeatedly sit back and squat:

I felt more relaxed, rested, and less stressed and anxious afterwards. Maybe endorphins were making me feel good.

I felt content because I knew that I was doing something healthy, so even though there were a million reasons to feel like shit, I knew I was on the “right track.”

As I approached a 300lb deadlift I felt very badass (don't laugh), so I was clearly developing a sense of meaning that I, myself, had created.

Making the choice to do something which at first seemed ultimately pointless was like the ultimate “fuck you” to entropy and despair. It was thrilling when people wondered why the hell you were doing something so pointless. They were right – it was pointless and stupid. And I continue to squat. There's something beautiful about that.

Tonight I will attend to my needs as a human mammal and eat a chunk of meat and sleep. Then I will go to the gym tomorrow to train. It doesn't have to be complicated. Stupid people like complexity. It's refreshingly simple – just letting go and being a human mammal.  

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