A Mantra For Life and Becoming a “Man” by Max el-hag

Life is hard. If you think life isn’t hard or up until this point it has not been hard for you, I would put money on it that your time is coming. At TTT HQ we have been doing a lot of talking about the struggles of life, relationships, and sports, and it seems that emotions are the ultimate determiners of experience. The more I think about that, the funnier I find society. We are all striving for ‘happiness’ without ever really discussing what that actually means. So many people would automatically answer “yes” without thinking to the question “Are you happy?”, and yet they often go on buying sprees or change relationships to try and fill a hole they may not admit to themselves they may be feeling. Many times, we have forgotten how to love, and what we identify as that feeling is really a need to possess. We get angry if a significant other does not change a status on Facebook or tell our children we pay for them so they owe us. Sometimes, we create a phobia for the negative ranges of emotions and very few people, especially men, are given permission to express and communicate the negative ranges of feelings inside of their psyches. Under all of these circumstances, it is nearly impossible to really know ourselves enough to truly love and connect with others. Without a sense of community on a level that is real, and not just a bunch of social gestures combined with society’s material measurements, it would be nearly impossible to find true happiness and contentment.

I recently watched a documentary on Netflix on the concept of ‘false masculinity’ and I watched a video of a man in Detroit giving an emotional lesson to a young boy and his father in a martial arts class. That got me thinking about how difficult it was to try to have, understand, and express feelings as a man in a healthy way. This is especially true in the context of athletics where we strive for this sense of invulnerability dominance. We, or some of us at least, are taught as little boys that “crying is for pussies,” “you’re a little girl if you cry,” or any other number of shame provoking thoughts about any emotion that is not conducive to athletic performance. It seems anger is so comfortably accepted by sport culture, but many men don’t feel comfortable expressing their anger because it can cause other people to be unhappy. I am a man, but I think that this simplistic view of masculinity versus femininity causes real problems in the fitness and sporting culture, and so I wanted to share my perspective, which is obviously biased towards males. Obviously, what is masculine and feminine is determined and indoctrinated by whatever society in which you come of age, and so I want to make clear I am speaking only of the prescribed social norms for masculine and feminine used in the Western World. I am aware not all men and women will fit into these stereotypes. If you are more feminine, I believe this can help you better understand the masculine, help you understand characteristics you might need to develop to improve your athletic self that are typically called “masculine traits,” and I will also circle back to explaining in general how I feel all people, no matter the gender, should approach athletics.

My personal coming of age story was long and took many turns before I came to think of myself as man, and define what masculinity means to me now. I think many men in my type of body and with my subset of skills embrace their masculine traits. In a lot of ways, I was embarrassed of my ‘masculinity’, and that crafted my personality to be so comfortable and expressive of my vulnerabilities that oftentimes people were confused when they interacted with me. I should acknowledge that my experience was not “normal”. I suffered some really difficult experiences growing up, so what follows of my personal experience is probably an extreme example. Nevertheless, I think to some extent our human experiences are pretty universal. I was taught how to be violent as I came of age. My father was an Olympian in Judo, I became comfortable with violence, started playing football at an early age, and in general always felt the desire to fight people. But, when I was young, I learned that my anger resulted in people being hurt. As a little kid, I remember winning a state title by choking two kids unconscious, and feeling a lot of sadness and regret for them. I don’t think I understood at the time that I could feel multiple emotions and be proud of my athletic accomplishments while also sad that I hurt someone. But I know for certain I would not have expressed it growing up, because I had learned it was a kill or be killed world and if someone was going to be knocked unconscious, it damn sure wasn’t going to be me. By the time I got to high school football, I had an outlet for all of my repressed anger and rage, and I tried to hit everybody as hard as I possibly could in some sort of a way to assert dominance. Because I was in the papers and getting praise for being so good at athletics, my persona and behaviors continued to spiral deeper and deeper into this outward expression of rage. The sensitive side of me who really cared about humanity and really wanted to connect and help people was pretty repressed. I remember times where I said things to people, and/or physically hurt them and being torn on the inside between the sense of superiority it gave me, and the empathetic pain I felt for another human’s suffering.

As I grew older, my testosterone shot through the roof. I was repressing a lot of rage and anger, and developing a quick mind that was capable of constructing mean and hateful words about others on command. This made it very difficult for me to ‘lose my temper’, and not have that end in people being hurt, either physically or emotionally. I realized, earlier than it seems most aggressive men do, that dealing with my feelings in that way might make me feel better temporarily, but ultimately, when I calmed down, the suffering of anyone, but specially the people close to me, was not a price I was willing to pay. So, I spent years changing myself. I purposefully swallowed the bomb of my rage. Things that pissed me off: people’s insensitivity for others, my hatred for human stupidity, greed, willful ignorance, etc, led to a palpable level of hate for my own imperfections. I could not come to a place in my own psyche that was at peace with the man I would become because I had no vision of the end goal. My journey through my psyche was dark and painful. I spent many days lying in bed hoping that I never woke up. I didn’t want to have to endure days of solitude and pain. I hated how hateful I was. I hated having thoughts of beating people’s faces in, and screaming at their stupidity. When I expressed that to people, they would be shocked because externally I was liked, but I used to tell people “…that is only because I wear a mask and cover the aspect of myself that you would not like.” Because I worked really hard to be kind to people, tried to resolve disputes and apologize for my transgressions, and because I never truly lost my shit, I was able to maintain a life that outwardly had some sense of normalcy. Things are extremely different for me now. Some days I still have to combat those demons. Often times, I still choose not to express those feelings because society doesn’t know how to deal with them. But, I have developed outlets and coping strategies, and obtained a level of awareness that allows me to keep working on myself and getting better at being the person I want to be.

I think most people fear that they will be judged if they express their ‘negative feelings.’ Or they feel they will be a burden on other people by conveying these thoughts. They don’t want to burden other people with their sadness, frustration, ‘crazy thoughts,’ and think that they are alone in feeling these things. I remember, in the past, sharing these thoughts with people and watching their faces and listening to the shock. To this day people are shocked that I use my public platform to be so candid about who I am and where I came from psychologically. It would be a much sunnier marketing strategy for me to be talking about how fast my business is growing, how much I know, what I am capable of, and to do all the typical marketing things to grow faster and essentially frame my reality with roses and unicorns. But, I always felt that was disingenuous, and I always felt more proud about doing what I did for my business by being the person I wanted to be instead of trying to play the game.

Nowadays, I seek advice and council from people I trust, and I have learned to express myself without worrying too much about how people will perceive me. It feels good for me to do that, and I find I am more effective as a leader, person, coach, and human being when I can be myself. But, I often get advice from people when I verbalize those thoughts. They must confuse my expression of those feelings with an invitation for their thoughts. They say things like “…oh you should (get married/have kids/market more so your business grows faster cause money will solve those problems)” or “…you shouldn’t feel that way because you have so many things going for you,” or a variety of other things to try to pull me out of my negativity. I know it generally comes from a good place and I am sure they are seeing me in a positive light and expressing that I should be grateful for having cultivated a sharp mind, a powerful/flexible/healthy body, a growing business, and everything else that a person could ask for to pursue a life of meaning. The problem is that feelings are not rational. They cannot be controlled, and by cognitive framing we cannot just make them disappear. I find that I can take my attention off of them by thinking about other things, or distracting myself with animal videos, sexual thoughts, training, tasty food, or a variety of other pleasures life has to offer, but the demons continue to sit in the seat of my soul until I work through them. As a younger man, I was a raw nerve who was dying to explode. I wanted to fight everyone, have sex with everything, and have a release of this primal energy that seems to have no outlet in our current society. This CONSTANTLY brewed underneath the surface of the man I was to the outside world, and was the person I identified as my ‘actual’ self. Time, perspective, knowledge, and personal growth gave me a different context for being able to understand the complexity of one’s self is far more than the pervasive thoughts of the psyche. We are a combination of our relationships, our bodies, our personal narrative, our impact, our thoughts, our feelings, the feelings we create in others, humanity in general, and the human experience is so complex and such an enigma that we have been asking the same deep questions for thousands of years: “what are we and why are we here?” I don’t intend to waste my life mentally masturbating on the thought that I will figure that out, but I do intend to try, in whatever way I can, to make the world a better place than it was before I arrived. Maybe that is a grandiose view of my meaningless impact, but luckily for me I am human and I have an amazing ability to imagine myself as an important cog in the wheel of human existence.

I feel my place to make that change is physical training and athletics. I don’t think most people will go through the same things I went through, but I do think that having a basic framework for dealing with my feelings can be valuable to people who search for greatness in sport, are struggling to lose weight and love the way they look, or are looking to get out of chronic pain from years of physical training abuse or neglect.

I have found myself recently offering assistance and guiding a group of young talented aggressive men on how to understand, express, and use their emotions in a productive way. I think that ‘false masculinity’ can really repress people’s emotions. As a result, many high level athletic men come to some serious struggling points in their adult lives as the pressure, expectation, and experiences mount and they’re forced to balance these feelings and continue to push themselves in the gym. It seems, we are never taught how to be sad, how to be angry without taking it out on people, how to be afraid, how to deal with disappointment or anything else that is not associated with the ‘alpha-male’ persona (which can also be a high achieving woman, I’d guess…although I’ve never been a woman). I believe this coping strategy turns people into prisoners of their feelings, and the coping mechanisms that we used as children to survive adolescence, school, the dating scene, business growth, and the ascension of the societal dominance hierarchy no longer work as we enter into society as adults.

As I have grown and changed into the coach I am today, people are often confused by me. I say what is on my mind, I am kind and caring, but have an extremely strong sense of drawing boundaries with people about how they can interact with me, I teeter between an intense sense of calm and serenity, and a manic approach to work, reading, training, movement exploration, verbalizing my inner world, and coping with the uncertainty of the world. I am a work in progress and I think often times that is less salable than being an ignorant blow hard who hasn’t realized that life ultimately humbles us all. However after watching the evolution of many of my elite male athletes, I know that this is something that needs to be spoken about in public, and that gender roles are damaging to men and women athletes. In general we need to be focusing on navigating the insanity of life and understanding our emotions in a healthy way if we hope to ever attain ‘success’ or have a positive impact on the world.

I had a client send me a poem and said that it reminded them of me. I read through it and was honored to have someone believe my behavior was reflected in the work. I also became very aware, yet again, that good writing and the use of metaphor is one of the only ways to express such complex ideas in a short concise way. Unfortunately, my skills with the English language have always left me using way too many words and making it hard for me to get my point across concisely as evidenced by the length of this blog already (sorry, but reading is good for you, so I’m not that sorry). So, I felt I could use this poem with my interpretation of how you could use this as a guiding philosophy to achieve success in life and athletic pursuits.

You’ll find first the poem with my personal interpretation in bold explaining how I think it’s useful and then below that you’ll find the entire unadulterated poem. Hopefully as you read through this, you will be able to find something of value whether you are a man or a woman in your journey to make your life one that is successful on your own terms.

(‘Brother Square-Toes’—Rewards and Fairies)

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

All sorts of negative feelings will arise in your quest as an athlete. You’ll be sad, frustrated, hurt, disappointed, scared, and each experience will take you through every range of negative emotions. If you are striving for greatness, you must be prepared to handle these with grace, and seek help so you don’t feel alone. Do not let these feelings cloud your rational mind. Find way to clarity of thought and a calm body before analyzing what to do moving forward. If you get upset about a failed lift and try it 75 times before hitting it, that’s probably not a good idea. If you perform poorly at the games and explode and throw a public temper tantrum then fire your coach so you can blame someone other than yourself, that’s probably not a good idea. Emotions are important, but so are rationality and perspective. Growth is hard and if you want to push yourself, be prepared to deal with the difficulty of the entire journey.

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

So many people will question you, doubt you if you are doing something different, hate on you, or try to stop you from finding your success. Whatever path you choose trust that it is the right one for you. If you are constantly questioning and constantly doubting, you will waste your focus on meaningless stuff. Be fully invested in what you do and disregard the opinions of the peanut gallery.

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Be patient… life (and athletic development) is a marathon, not a sprint.

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

Tell your relative truth knowing there is no absolute truth and that your truth will change as life experience teaches you more. Don’t hate people for lying, or disagreeing with you, or having poor intentions for it only is a reflection of your desire to create separation from you and your species, which never seems to end in happiness. Don’t spend too much time being vain and don’t spend too much time speaking with over confidence. In the end of the day, connection and kindness bring far more happiness to the self than superiority and isolation.

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

Cultivate an imagination, but don’t let what you want reality to be affect how you deal with the way things are in the present moment. For example, strive to be a games athlete, but if you discover that it won’t be this year because you are too far off, or life gets in the way, make peace with it. Either create a new dream or alter the way you envision that dream playing out. If you want to be 5% bodyfat and you go on a diet and 6 months later you are not where you wanted to be, then learn from the experience and love yourself anyway. If your imagination is well cultivated, the real world will never be as amazing as your imagination, but there is still so much beauty, mystery, and opportunity within the realm of possibility to balance your time in your mind in the imagination and in your body in the present.

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

Think and maintain balance between planning (thinking) and action (doing). Too much planning is no good and too much action is no good. Find a balanced state of consciously approaching your training plan and mindlessly attacking your daily training. The sweet spot is where you will find greatness and the sweet spot is found through a lot of intelligent trial and error, not solely in books or solely in suffering.

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

Winning should not change you in any more of a profound way than losing. All life experiences are life changing. Each small moment in life is constantly changing and altering the course of your future. Winning will open some doors and close others. Losing will open doors and close others. Strive to do your best and let chaos determine if it is ‘good enough to win.’ Your will or desires alone will not dictate winning, and if you can relinquish the illusion of control over your outcomes, you may find the life you were looking for all along in a different way than you had envisioned finding it. If you are ONLY going to be happy if you win or if your dreams come true, then you have already lost the game of life.

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

No matter what you say and what you do, people will always perceive it the way they want. Life is a solitary quest and we must first and foremost be concerned about doing what we believe in our hearts is right, saying what we believe in our minds is true, and acting in a way that connects us to others. How people alter and distort those actions, words, thoughts, and beliefs is their problem. Your athletic quest, if you are successful, will probably be used for the advancement of a company that has nothing to do with you as a sponsored athlete. Your brand vision will likely be copied and imitated if you become popular. It is part of human nature and you must just accept that and work to enjoy the flattery while not letting it effect your inner happiness for longer than it needs to in order for it to take its course. Don’t develop hate and resentment for the nature of reality and humanity, for all of its flaws you are a part of it, and likely possess the very traits you resent in others.

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

Life is temporary. Everything that you collect, all the stories you have, all the clothes you like, the cars you think are cool, the medals you accumulate, the money you put in the bank, they are all temporary. They are all part of an abstract identity that exists in this moment in time. You will think that everything you are going through right now is the most important thing in the world, and that no one can possibly fathom how amazing or miserable your experience is, but I assure you that you are not that unique. Nothing that you have right now will be that important to you in the future. At the end of the day we all want to be connected, loved, understood, and if you are willing to constantly throw away your identity in pursuit of that, then you have the mind of a champion.

If your technique got you to a certain level, but now it’s not working to drive progress, change it all and deal with the sadness and disappointment. If your past program wasn’t good enough to attain your goal, change it and don’t hold onto resentment or blame for the current moment. If the way you dealt with your emotions in the past is making you miserable, change it and find your peace. If the relationship that you’re in is causing you more misery than happiness, work to build it stronger and find happiness in it again, or move on. Forget everything you ‘were’ and constantly be changing who you are for life is all about change.

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

Be humble. We are all human and in spite of what you may be seeking to find in a feeling of self-confidence and belonging, you will ultimately realize there is no better or worse human. There are more popular and less popular humans. There are people who have traits that you want, and others you are glad you don’t possess. There are kind humans and mean humans. But each person you encounter is necessary to the entire system whether or not you can recognize it, and each can teach you a lesson about yourself and life. Maintain perspective on humanity and yourself and allow life to unfold in the way that it is going to for you. Don’t obsess over how it unfolds for others, or try to let their story effect your sense of happiness.

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

Be a master of your feelings. Other people should influence them both positively and negatively. The people you love will affect them more, but ultimately it is your responsibility to cope like a mature human being and give back to humanity to build your legacy without turning hateful or dealing with your negative ranges of emotions like a child. Be a better human.

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Life is brief, you can avoid thinking about it, but we all die. Everyone you ever loved, everyone you ever admired, every animal you love, and you will all die. You can look at that as a depressing statement OR you can look at that as a reminder that life is but a brief moment and it is your responsibility to do everything you possibly can to seek happiness, fulfillment, and connection with the short time you were given.

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

And if you follow those philosophies then you will grow past a childhood state of existence and become a ‘man.’ Those are much different concepts of masculinity than put forth in our current culture and I think they apply to both men and women. So perhaps we should call this a philosophy of how to be a better human or a better athlete, but given that I am a man and I have struggled with these myself, and conditioning these out of athletes I am close to, I felt it was worth it and relevant to draw the parallels to masculinity. Whether you apply these to create a better family, a better business, a better athletic career, or a better life, it is all the same. Feelings are universal to the human experience, so work to understand yourself and good luck!

Full Poem:

(‘Brother Square-Toes’—Rewards and Fairies)

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Source: A Choice of Kipling's Verse (1943)

~ Max

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Max El-Hag
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