T Nation

Character Hypertrophy

How do you typically react to setbacks? I’m not talking about the small stuff, like disagreeing with your boss, arguing with a loved one, or having a bad workout. I’m talking about major life changes, like separating from your wife of 15 years, getting laid off, or hearing your workout buddy, Surge, tell you that he has secretly had a crush on you over the years and when he was spotting you on squats, he was really staring at your ass the whole time. (I’m sorry, Surge, if you’re going to stare at my ass, you’ve got to tell me about it.) What would you do? How would you react?

How we chose to respond to these seminal life events is a good indicator of our level of true manhood. No matter how many muscles we may have or how ripped we may be, if we can’t face adversity with a smile, we simply aren’t men in the truest sense of the word.

Please, let me step back a minute to explain where I’m coming from on this. Several months ago, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I was told that if I survived the surgery, I could end up with permanent double-vision, loss of functionality on the left side of my body, loss of the ability to swallow, and potentially more. You see, at the ripe age of 26, a algae-like growth about the volume of two golf balls had grown on the lining of my brainstem, and was pushing against my cerebellum. From what my 72-year-old doc essentially told me (yes, that’s right, he graduated high school the same year as John McCain), this type of surgery often doesn’t end up pretty. And the possibility of complication is high.

So how did I react?

First, I will tell you what I didn’t do. I didn’t chug a bottle of scotch. I didn’t go skydiving. I didn’t suggest my boss engage in ‘pro-creational impossibilities’ with himself. Wait, what’s that? No skydiving? Isn’t that supposed to be the coolest thing for a potentially dying person to do before he kicks the bucket? Well, not for me, at least. While our movie culture might lead you to believe otherwise, when push came to shove, I realized that the rush I would have gotten from such daredevil stunts as skydiving or getting high was mere distraction in light of what truly matters: connections. And no, I’m not talking about the business type of connections. I’m talking true, human-to-human connections, like giving your mom a hug, or hearing about that time you drank a fifth of Southern Comfort and ran around pinching girls’ asses and doing pull-ups on the water pipes all night. In short, I reacted by connecting and reconnecting with my friends and family. But I digress.

Okay, so I got that figured out, but what if I came out of this surgery with some weird kind of deformity? How would I handle living with one of the potentially severe handicaps that my doc’ had mentioned above?

I really struggled with this one. But deep inside me, I knew that I had to come to terms with what I was up against or risk impeding my body’s recovery process. My mind tossed and turned, but as the surgery date came closer, I started to think that I was going to be at a loss.

Then, on the night before my impending surgery, as I faced the possibility of it all being taken away, I tried one last time to find an answer. I stood up and looked into the sunset for, perhaps, the last time ever. My mind was silent for a long time. Numb, not knowing what to think.

And then something truly incredible happened… I got goose bumps.

From breathing.

Yes, I was breathing. How absolutely amazing was that? At that moment, I gained more joy out of the simple act of breathing, than skydivers could ever get out of jumping from 10,000 feet in the air.

It was this realization that taught me that if we focus on the roots of our life, we can handle just about anything that comes our way.

If I lost my ocular functions, I would enjoy the opportunity to hear and to feel like never before; if I lost the ability to swallow, I’d have a machine installed to do it for me; if I lost functionality on the left side of my body, I wouldn’t have to worry about doing those awkward left-arm DB rows; and so on. In short, whatever happened to me I truly looked forward to the challenge of proving myself in spite of it.

That’s why I believe that developing a character of steel is so important. Indeed, it is at the root of all of the decisions we make in our lives. So many times do we focus a disproportionate amount of our energy on becoming superficially affluent (improving our looks, money, prestige, etc.) when we have failed to build a solid character to support these external accomplishments. Just like having weak abdominal muscles can set us up for future injuries, so can a lack of sufficient character lead us to be unnecessarily harmed when one or more of our accomplishments gets taken away.

If we can look into your own eyes and say, “I’m breathing, and therefore, I am okay,” then we likely have the sufficient character and internal strength to overcome any adversity.

While that’s probably a hard pill for most of us to swallow, we can think of the above statement as a goal. By living more honestly, passionately, and empathetically, we can hypertrophy our character, in much the same way that we grow our muscles. Over time, we will become more resilient to setbacks, more comfortable with risk, and ultimately, more of a T-man.

Indeed, character is the truest test of our manhood. A substantial portion of the reason that a muscular body is attractive to females is that it visually depicts a man with a strong character. In our modern society, physical prowess is becoming more of a symbol of a strong character than a practical tool for, say, protection or increased hunting efficiency. (Of course, there are plenty of practical benefits to being in shape, but you get the point.) If we work at developing our character along with our bodies, we will become more well-rounded, and we will be able to live with that resounding sense of calm and confidence, knowing that as long as we are breathing, we can handle just about anything.

A few months ago, TC suggested I post this article to one of the t-mag forums. So here it is.

thanks for reading,

“start small, think big, don’t quit, go go go”

awesome article.


nice first post

Great article!

im so glad that i read that.

i have had tough times here and there (though not brain tumor, need surgery, might die sort of tough), and i realized the same thing that you did. i wont say that the world suddenly made sense to me in a moment, but i too was able to boil things down to their simplicity and realized all i had to do was keep breathing. no matter what shit gets thrown your way or how stressed you feel at a certain time, etc, it wont stay that way forever, SOMETHING has to give, and even if you feel that you cant possibly exert any more effort, all you have to do is keep breathing.

it seems so simple, but at the same time so profound, and to me, even comforting.

Fantastic article. Thank you for posting. I needed to read that tonight.

Thanks, that really lifted my spirit up.

Good shit man, I can relate to you.

impressive piece of writing my man, made me think about a lot of stuff…thanks!

Thanks for that, dude.

Amazing. After tossing around in bed for the last 2 hours with thoughts swirling around my head, I really needed this. Thank you for sharing.

Truly inspiring! Thank you very much for posting!

Best first post ever. Glad you’re still with us bro.

God Bless You. There are very few forums that I read that contain articulate and poignant thought. We live in a society immersed in excess and superficiality. And it is very sad when a good man has to succumb to such horrible extremes to realize the importance of life. Thank you for sharing your awaking and pain to the rest of T-Nation. Being in the medical field my whole adult life I have seen first hand what you went through and my hat is off to your mental strength. Are you post-op or still pre-op? I am sure we would all like to know how you are doing.

Can we sticky this?

I second DJHT’S question, I would sure like to know how you are getting on.
There was a good possibility of me having testicular cancer only a few weeks ago but I got the all clear.
While I always considered myself an open person I actually kept this from everyone and didn’t tell anyone about my worries, doctors tests or x-rays.

I like to take the time every now and then just to appreciate the things in life I don’t really think about every day. Friends, relationships gone and those to come, bonds created out of unlikely circumstances, how lucky I am to be able to afford a gym membership and have no physical or mental obstacles stopping me from going in and building strength and character under that barbell.

I like reading articles like this, I always try and remember what these types of articles teach us and use it every day(I’m not very successful at it however)

I’m glad I read this, thanks for posting. Good luck.

I had brain surgery in February '07, similar to yours. I think everyone who faces the possibility of death or disability goes through a similar process. For me, the words of a book I read to my children when they were young came to mind. The wise fox said to the Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly and what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Best of luck with your recovery.

I would like to truly thank you. I’m sitting at my desk in work on the verge of tears, thinking about the trivial things I’ve worried about, while others go through hell. I hope all goes well.

Excellent article; I really enjoyed it. I was thinking about this the other day. Sometimes I feel sorry for myself because my shoulders suck and have both been dislocated more times than I care to count. I can’t really play any sports because of this, as it comes out too easily.

Anyways, I was training legs the other day alongside some dude in a wheelchair that was benching. Took him forever to set up all of the weights, get into place, and needless to say no leg-drive while benching. At that moment, I really felt like a huge douche bag for feeling sorry for myself because of my shoulder. I was thinking he probably has felt sorry for himself before as well, but then thought about the quadriplegic that can’t do any of the things he can do. Perspective is a funny thing, and a little bit of it tends to go a long way.