The Cult of Strength

Strength and honor! I have chanted this to myself tens of thousands of times over the years, day after day. It is a rallying cry, a reminder never to stop. To hold the line, no matter the cost.

I share with you now the single great secret to success that I have learned, and seen proven in my sister Kelly – with absolute perfection in school, talented at the violin, a Machiavellian master of dominating social situations by will alone, and of course the World Championships and Olympic Medal. You too can choose one primary, and one or two secondary objectives, so that you can maintain some fiction of balance in your life by switching between them as needed. Then you give absolutely everything you have, every moment of your day, driving towards them.

Choosing objectives that suit your strengths is helpful, but the amount of your devotion can make up for some lacking – Kelly clearly had good sports genetics, but not as good as some of her teammates. She dominated anyway.

And one little caveat to get this started off with, is that you can’t be doing this for the attention of your peers. This is what I have seen that usually leads to people failing. Such motivation leads to either stopping too soon, after only a little success, or else to trying to take too many shortcuts, to pretend at the success, rather than actually earning it. If you are here just to enjoy the rewards, you will probably fail to reach your true potential.

Thus, the cult of strength. The cult of utmost potential. You must truly believe in what you are doing, as if preordained by a higher power. For Kelly, as a child, the higher power was the desires of the authority figures in her world, but it progressed to relentless fanaticism to prove herself undeniably the best of all.

Learn from me some other potential failings. My own lesser success is a result of my own lesser belief. I merely want to be among the best, and I dabbled into far too many objectives, taking on too many hobbies and side interests.

Focus and fanaticism, that is the key if you want to use the cult to actually achieve greatness.

My strength and honor motto for this is spoken in the movie Gladiator by Maximus, a general who is betrayed, his family executed and himself nearly as well. He escapes, is made a slave, and becomes a gladiator. Spoiler alert, he rises amid an epic soundtrack and stunning scenery to great fame, comes to Rome, and with absolutely relentless strength, manages to slay the emperor who stole his life and family from him. It is hard to find a better role model for this cult.

This movie came at a time when I needed it, and it really helped define my own cult of strength. It was two years after Kelly, who had at the meager age of nine taken the pushing of our parents and a rivalry with a friend Katie to a whole new level, and had decided to dedicate her life to domination. That started the fires of competition among us that raged, violently and angrily for years to come. From what little I recall of the times before, I entered this as a curious and spacey child, mostly a blank slate.

Within a few years I was broken, struggling under OCD. My doctor father thought it was all just the result of a brain infection, and that it cleared up once given antibiotics. Just like in his mind, how Kelly’s suicide was only the result of her having a minor concussion. In my case, he seems to have conveniently ignored a large body of scientific literature seeming to disprove the pet theory used. The truth I have always felt, was that I was truly struggling, and then I was terrified by the interventions taken against me for my condition. It wasn’t antibiotics that cured me, but this emergency decision to be strong, to never break again, to hold the line, no matter the sacrifice required.

Kelly and I thus found different paths to much the same behavior. Kelly sought it as a path to greatness, and I sought it as means of survival, but it is certainly our mutual competition, and more rarely, cooperation, over the ensuing years that cemented our dedication as true believers to the worship of strength. It is one thing to decide to dedicate yourself to a path, but it will take years for the necessary imprinting on your soul to develop, and you need something powerful pushing you to get through that time.

Sacrifice is definitely present at the forefront of the imagery of this cult. My hero Maximus had fallen by his own honor – refusing to play politics, accidentally sacrificing his family over his pretensions.  And he died in the end, side by side with his enemy. At a young age, I was also deeply impacted by All Quiet on the Western Front. In it, soldiers cycle back and forth between the hell of the trenches of the First World War, and to the surreal normalcy of rest periods behind the lines, much as my own life seemed to cycle between happy normalcy and brutal struggle. Here too, the hero dies, the last of his friends, mere days from the end of the war.

‘Get on that fifty!’ movie still from Black Hawk Down

If you want to know the real truth, it is that I have never gone further forward because my own fanatical objective could not be realized. I was raised to go to war. The endless history I read, the games I played, the movies I watched, all told me that heroes fight. And what more could you want in a soldier than a disciplined fanatic, ready to sacrifice everything for strength and honor?

Yet I either have the great fortune, or great misfortune (it is unclear to me which) to live in a time where there is no war. Sure, there are plenty of bushfires in third world countries that flare up periodically, but nothing that would make a General Maximus out of me. Even those bushfires have sorely tempted me at times, but said wannabe hero knows well he would probably find himself appointed as some kind of technician far from the fires if he even tried to volunteer for them.

This dream has lived powerfully on, tormenting me with my failure. It has spasmed out into attempting many other objectives, half-heartedly. I cannot be what was imprinted on my soul. Which is probably best for me, as it would make me either a monster, or more likely, a pointless death upon some distant shore.

Kelly saw the opposite outcome. She succeeded, achieving every goal she wanted. There was more she could have done. She could have earned another medal or another, well, pretty much anything, but nothing was really a higher accomplishment than what she had already achieved. She had everything she had committed her soul to. The possibility of decades more life, with the certainty of more failures and struggles, and no clear benefit to earn from them, left her deciding to take her own life. It was perhaps not a decision she would have made in a time of less stress, or if I had been there by her side, but still, it was not an illogical choice either.

Above all, she died feeling unloved. Loving her was like loving the sun, able to bask in its brilliance, but neither able to look at it straight, nor get too close. I think social engagement will always be hard for those pursuing their utmost potential. Friends have such a high maintenance cost, constantly having to keep them happy takes up more time than you can easily afford. And many people will never really understand who you are, what you are trying to do, or, above all, why you are trying to do it.

It is actually not so hard as you may imagine to succeed as Kelly did. It’s just doing lots and lots of work. And making lots of sacrifices. If you can do it, you will find that there isn’t even that much competition, because so very few people are willing to pay the price.

Thus, you have the final secret in the initiation of this cult. The only way to ultimately succeed and know that you have reached the best you can be is to die. Otherwise, there will always be more that you can do. Perfect strength is not a destination but a journey, and that can be difficult to accept. There exists another way out of course, to abandon your dreams. This will result in your expulsion from the cult, of course. And is really bad for your mental health. Once you are in, leaving may be just as bad as staying in.

The ultimate appeal of this cult is that it is founded on hope. The belief that you can be something better. For those who struggle, embracing the journey towards strength can be of huge benefit. It was to me, for a long time. I have been subtly, or perhaps not so subtly, mocking the beliefs I have presented here the entire time, but the truth is they can be quite valuable. It helped me for many years.

The Strength and Honor Path to Success:

  1. Choose a few objectives and choose them well. They need to be difficult but not impossible. Generally, intensive, quantitative, or competitive objectives will work best.
  2. Have a powerful motivator to hold you through. Grief, desperation, and desire for revenge are good places to start, but worthy competition is better in the long term, if you can find it. I don’t believe other social motivators work well.
  3. Commit your entire soul to this achievement. Be prepared to make sacrifices.
  4. Embrace the journey more than the destination
  5. Have an exit strategy. A plan for failure and a plan for success.
  6. And then, chant with me strength and honor and embrace the struggle. Embrace every moment of pain not as pain, but as proof of your devotion. Revel in the opportunity to test yourself and learn. This will get you through your struggles.

And this, really, is my farewell to the cult of strength.

My journey with it really began to die with the loss of Kelly. She was largely the one who drove me into it, and largely the one who kept me going. Grief kept me teetering along the path for a few more years.

My strongest dreams of glory are also just bad dreams. Warfare and space empires are generally wonderful but completely impossible things. I have other objectives in life, but they really aren’t fanatical dreams of success any more. I mostly do athletics these days because I enjoy it, not because I have any real desire of trying to be an Olympian as well.

Well, I did have one desire to be an Olympian, in knowing that if I went to the games as a champion, it would certainly bring Kelly’s memory back into the news, and thus honor her. But I don’t think I am willing to pay the price needed to get there. I will have to find other ways to honor that memory.

I always wanted to be like Kelly. She was the one with the initial spark and engagement, I was merely a follower. I have always struggled to answer questions like “who is your role model.” For some reason, not even Maximus Decimus Meridius aka Gladiator really felt right to me. The truth is, Kelly was my role model. Yet for all our similarities, I just don’t have the will to dominate others. For me, global domination is more an amusing game and the cult of strength was a means of survival, not a means of living.

2 thoughts on “The Cult of Strength”

  1. So sincere and so true! Thank you for your honesty and opening up. It is a good reminder what should matter the most in life. 🙏

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