Teddy Roosevelt became an American symbol of the “strenuous life” – one of his favorite phrases. He believed in hard work, in pushing the body, in living on the aggressive, muscular, energetic side of life. He worried that his generation of men were going soft and that the body would rob the mind and then the manhood of the nation. He was right to be concerned. We should be terrified of this today.
He didn’t start out like this. Born into a wealthy family, he was a sickly child with severe asthma. He was intellectual with a fierce curiosity and zeal for investigating life, but his body failed him. Exertions brought on breathlessness which left him weak and bedridden. Even when he paced himself, he quickly ran out of energy. He seemed doomed to a nearly housebound life. His father finally intervened and sat him down and said, “Theodore, you have the mind, but you have not the body, and without the help of the body, the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your own body. It is hard drudgery to make one’s body, but I know you will do it.”
It was a turning point. What boy wishes to disappoint his father? What boy does not take to heart his father’s solution to a life-altering challenge? A family member who watched the conversation later said that young Theodore, “the sorry little specimen”, looked up at his father, “threw his head back and declared he would do it”. He devoted himself completely to the challenge. He lifted weights, hammered away at a punching bag, swung dumbbells and spent hours grunting himself into position on the horizontal bars. Years went by with little improvement. Finally as a freshman in college, it started to take hold and Teddy experienced a “miraculous transformation”. Those dreary years of exercise, hour after hour, made him into a man who knew the power of work, of will over body, and of the need for a man to live a strenuous life.
Later in life, he tragically lost his dear wife and his mother in one 24-hour period. He was destroyed – “the light has gone out of my life” he would write. He had a baby daughter he knew was in need a woman’s care and what he did next shocked the upper crust NY society but it completed the process of making him a heroic man. He handed his beloved daughter to his sister, sold nearly everything he had, and moved to the Dakota territories, where for several years, he had been investing in a cattle ranch that overlooked a bend in the Missouri River. He remained there for three years.
Why did he go? Why such a dramatic move? The answer seems to be that Roosevelt needed to restore and rebuild and he knew only one way to do it: return to the strenuous and the difficult. Perhaps those hours of lifting weights and balancing on horizontal bars had surfaced forces of soul he needed to summon once again. Perhaps a return to the arduous physical life was the only way he knew to quell the turmoil of his heart. Obviously, he needed space, wilderness, difficult tasks, and looming danger. He knew this was the key to healing. He had experienced this truth in his life before.
After arriving in the Dakotas, Roosevelt did not spend three years in a comfortable chair by the fire with a brandy in one hand and a book in the other. Instead, he became the western hero of his dreams. He herded cattle and broke bucking horses. He stood down grizzlies and fought off desperados. On one occasion, he tracked down thieves for three days across 300 miles in subzero temperatures. Once he took the criminals captive, he then traveled another six days and 150 miles to surrender them to authorities. And the wilderness healed him. He tamed the wilderness around him by way of taming the wilderness of his own soul. He grieved and got through it. He lived in the moment, in the physical, and in intimate connection with nature. It forced him from living entirely in his thoughts to living a rooted, earthy life in which thoughts come only after work is done.
All men need what Roosevelt found – a strenuous physical life, the possibility of harm, challenges to face, enemies to oppose, land to conquer. Our lives push us away from this. We work in cubicles or comfortable vehicles. Technology serves us and keeps us from exertion. We live in opulent blandness – overfed, over-tended, over-entertained, and overly preoccupied with ourselves. But men need aggressive, physical lives. They need contest and conquest, strain and struggle. Otherwise, we lose ourselves to softness and effeminacy. It is not much of a surprise that a New Testament world that is translated effeminate from the original Greek actually means “soft through luxury”. It is a warning.
Roosevelt reminds us we are not disembodied spirits. We are souls sealed into bodies. We need to work the machinery, be alive in both body and soul. It will awaken the masculinity in us. It will help us untangle our inner knots. It will remind us we are men. (from the book Mansfield’s Book of Manly Men)