Fitness, Resilience and Violence

In preparation for a new novel about a mass shooting incident, I did extensive research on aberrant psychologies and recent mass shootings. In all my studies of mass killers, one connection kept popping up over and over again: the lack of basic resilience and violence. The shooter’s particular psychological makeup made no difference. Psychopaths, schizophrenics, depressives, autistics—none of these mental states predisposed a person to commit a violent attack. In fact, many people afflicted with these conditions (especially the latter three) are more likely to be victims rather than aggressors. But across all psychologies, every mass shooter lacked the ability to consistently confront a hardship and work past it.

Mass killers don’t just snap. They plan their attacks in advance for weeks, months, even years. Instead of experiencing a setback and letting it go or striving to overcome it, they let that defeat fester. They dwell on it, harboring a grudge. And when they encounter another setback, they add that insult or injury to their list of grievances, gradually rationalizing their attack.

I’ve said a lot already in KineSophy about the connection between physical and moral virtues, about how practicing yoga and mixed martial arts have helped many people cope with stress, anger and inclinations to violence. I believe there is another dimension to this physical-moral relationship, one that is particularly relevant to resilience and violence.

Life is not always easy or harmonious. You will fail and you will suffer. You will experience embarrassment, disappointment, frustration, grief and pain. If you haven’t figured that out by now, just wait.

Fitness, Resilience and Violence

But the physical training ground is a (relatively) safe place. Transitory success or failure there won’t directly impact your ability to get a good job or find the love of your life. Nothing counts in training, not really, not even for professional athletes, who are truly measured by success or failure in competition. Training is the place where you discover what you should be capable of, what you are capable of, and what it takes to get from the latter point to the former.

Becoming stronger, faster, or more mobile or enduring isn’t easy. It’s uncomfortable, challenging, fraught with failures, and sometimes you end up looking pretty stupid. But those setbacks rarely matter in the grand scheme of things. Your parents or spouse won’t love you any less if you don’t PR your bench press or your 5K. Your boss won’t fire you from your nine to five job if you can’t touch your toes.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive for physical virtues. Just like you should strive to learn and think critically and treat other people with respect. But the striving itself is a big part of what matters. It’s about learning to struggle, fail, overcome and move forward. And physical training offers a low-stakes environment for that education.

One connection kept popping up over and over again: the lack of basic resilience and violence.

At the risk of sounding like your fifth-grade gym teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how things might have been different if someone had shown these shooters the possibility of physically struggling, falling short, and eventually becoming stronger because of that challenge. So they could see, this is what it’s like to fail. And if it’s just a matter of not being able to do another push-up or failing to run another step or dropping weights off the barbell because you forgot to put clips on, it’s really not so bad. And a lot of other failures in life really aren’t so bad. But at the same time, they might begin to learn to move past these failures. They might learn to overcome them.

That’s what training is: getting used to dealing with small challenges and defeats so that the big ones become more manageable. Resilience is managing those defeats in a healthy way. It’s an education mass killers seem to lack.

For a biological look at resilience, see Hormesis, Exercise and Health.