With the cultural zeitgeist being what it is, and the young people being increasingly more sensitive and hysterical to whatever minor conflict enters their lives, I felt it would be best to discuss a hard lesson that I learned from the better part of two decades in the public school system.
Before I can discuss that, I have to discuss one of my favorite books, and my namesake, Jack London’s The Sea Wolf.
For those of you not aware of the plot of the book: the protagonist Humphrey Van Weyden is a prissy, sheltered rich boy with a strong sense of idealism and justice, particularly in his Rousseau-esque beliefs of inherent human goodness. While on a boat trip (this story takes place in the Gay ’90s), his ship capsizes and he is picked up by the Ghost, a seal hunting ship. This miserable little microcosm is commanded by Wolf Larsen, who press-gangs Humphrey and goes about asserting his dominance over the ship by kicking the shit out of our hero and everybody else who crosses him.
But there’s more to Larsen than just muscular barbarism: he is a genius autodidact that has, through sheer force of will, turned himself into something of a Renaissance Man, and developed his own sort of primitive Nietzschean philosophy based on his readings, a philosophy stating that life is inherently meaningless, and that all he seeks is pleasure – however, his pleasure is one of toil, strife, and personal conquest and triumph. The bulk of the book then becomes Humphrey hardening himself in body and mind as he and Larsen’s radically different worldviews clash, with the occasional shark attack, vehicular injury, beatdown, and gunfire thrown in to break up the routine.
I realize that London’s opus is not perfect: namely, the love story that arises in the last third of the book (via another, albeit female, castaway) is completely hokey, but the strength of the interaction between Van Weyden and Captain Larsen is what carries it, and makes it memorable 110 years after its original publication (personally, I think the hokiness of the romance could easily be redeemed with a slight change to the ending, but that’s beyond the scope of this article). Certainly, I share the beliefs of most readers of the novel (including Ambrose Bierce) in that Wolf is without a doubt the most memorable aspect of the book and should be considered one of the greatest characters of American literature.
So what am I getting at? It turns out that the basic story of The Sea Wolf (a pampered male being thrust into a harsh realm of barbarism and having to turn himself into a man) has been done, and fairly often, before The Sea Wolf and several times afterward as well. There is even a name for this genre: the katabasis.
Literally meaning “going down”, the katabasis story is one of humbling, and losing one’s privileged status, only to overcome these setbacks and become a better man explicitly because of the act of triumphing over the brutality of the recent experience.
Captain’s Courageous, Fight Club, Dune (not a perfect representation of the concept, as the Atreides family is heavily trained in both martial and mental arts, but it is still a story of the wealthy and privileged being humbled and having to claw their way back up) and more show the power and the recurrence of this theme. Even Jack London’s most famous work, The Call Of The Wild, is essentially a katabasis story starring a dog.
In my humble opinion, some degree of katabasis, some degree of humbling, is necessary for a man to truly know himself, and thus make himself stronger, wiser, braver, and overall better. Or, to put it bluntly, a man cannot know himself without challenging himself in some way or being challenged by somebody else.
Rather than going to the extremes of Captain Larsen, being in any competitive environment with another group of men will lead to the establishment of an informal hierarchy. And seeing as, statistically speaking, the chances are you will not be the leader of the hierarchy, you will by definition undergo some degree of humbling.
Playing recreational sports amongst friends, going to the gym and doing heavy weight lifting, joining a martial arts school and competing in full contact competition, trying to ask out a woman that is comparatively far more attractive than you, or attempting to learn a new skill while others watch are just a few modern ways that one can be humbled. And to get directly to the title, suffering bullying and resisting it is an “in between” sort of katabasis that will make you better in the long run. The first time around, humiliation is likely, but it will result in making you a stronger man once the embarrassment stops stinging and you’ve learned from your mistake (rest assured, it will sting, and it will hurt, emotionally and, likely, physically as well. I understand that. Just keep moving).
Unlike some people in this corner of the internet, I do not profess to be a master of the things I discuss here. But I am infinitely better than I once was, and I can safely say that my adolescent misery of being picked last for sports, getting bullied, and striking out repeatedly with girls was, in the long run, beneficial, if only because the childish anger that resulted motivated me to get revenge on my tormentors – and, of course, the best revenge is to live well.
The potential for humiliation is, in my opinion, the best feature of public schooling, and the zero-tolerance policies may result in more damage in the long term. But even if you are an adult, you can still be humbled. Reach out, try new things, fail, and be humble and resilient in your defeat. And it is only in that way that you can later win.