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Dare to Endure: The Twelve Labors Project Pt. 2

Missed Targets, Hit Marks, and Improved Aim 

When I wrote my first Pursuit article, I was just starting my 12-week training journey to pull off something I never thought would be within my reach: completing a 500 lb. deadlift, a sub-5 minute mile, and a 50-inch box jump, all in the same day. I write to you now, in part, to relay that I’ve missed my target, yet hit some milestones. But mostly, I write to now tell you of the labors loved and lessons learned. 

I set out on this pursuit with one aim in mind: to emerge as more than when I entered. Similar to a Misogi, I wanted to take on a challenge that carried at least a 50% chance of failure and held the potential to radically expand my sense of what’s possible.

I selected the 12 labors of Hercules to study in parallel for two reasons. The first, because his story has always called to me. And the second, because his legend follows one of the great motifs of the hero’s journey: one must pass through tests that purify to realize their potential.

It was the perfect analogy for my training. I knew heading in that there were a number of self-doubts, beliefs, and patterns of behavior that would need to be purged if I had any shot at accomplishing my assigned task.

Coming into it, I’d never deadlifted more than 405 pounds and never run a mile faster than 5:43. In fact, for nearly all of my adult life, I’d avoided deadlifts (after breaking my back 15 years ago) and distance running like the plague—telling myself they weren’t, and never would be, a part of who I was. 

Throughout the 12 weeks, there were periods of sickness and sprained ligaments, setbacks and celebrations. As it stands, my best mile is 5:36, my best deadlift is 455 pounds, and my best box jump is 54 inches. So there’s still a long way to go.

But what I can tell you is that my tides are turning—new energies are awakening inside me and momentum is building. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. I’m taking my diet and recovery more seriously than I ever have. And, inspired by one of the great lessons of Hercules and his labors, I’m committed to keep showing up as long as it takes.

Speaking of the lessons of the labors, it is to them that we now turn our attention. 

Mirrors, Clocks, and a Lifetime of Labors: Three Lessons Learned

For brevity’s sake, I won’t walk through every labor in this article (check out the highlight section of my Instagram if you want a look at each), but I will offer up a few of my favorite takeaways with what remains in this article: (1) the labors, like many great myths, are a mirror; (2) true endurance doesn’t look at the clock; and (3) unlike Hercules, our labors last a lifetime. 

1. Myths are a mirror

One of the great gifts I (unexpectedly) received in looking closely at the labors was their invitation to examine my own heart. The more I studied them, the more I realized that they reveal more about my nature than the hero’s—that their purpose “was and is” the same as what Shakespeare has Hamlet say of theater: “to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature.”

Looking at the labors as a whole, it became clear to me that much of Hercules’ movement through them is about what it means to wrestle with ourselves and our lower impulses. Much of it can be seen, also, as an examination of masculinity, in all its strengths and weaknesses. 

At his best points, we see the brightest parts of what masculinity proper has to offer: courage, compassion, self-control. Time and time again, we see Hercules serve as the courageous protector of the people, slaying beasts—the Nemean Lion (Labor 1), the Lernaean Hydra (Labor 2), the Erymanthean Boar (Labor 5), the Stymphalian Birds (Labor 6), and the Cretan Bull (Labor 7)—that terrorize. Many times throughout my training (especially the grueling track sessions) I drew the strength to complete the workout from the calls to courage and endurance echoing out of these labors. 

At his worst points, Hercules displays the dark side: violent, compulsive, and inconsiderate. In fact, the reason Hercules has the labors assigned to him in the first place is as penance for accidentally killing his family in a Hera-induced blind rage. 

And at his most human points, we see him struggle through the trauma of his past.

In Labor 8 (the Mares of Diomedes), for example, Hercules challenges Diomedes to a duel and gets burned when his misplaced trust that the corrupt king will fight fair causes the death of his close companion, Abderus. 

Heart heavy, Hercules carries that experience with him into Labor 9 (the Girdle of Hippolyta), where we see him getting along nicely with the Queen of the Amazons until a misunderstanding triggers the trauma of Diomedes’ betrayal. Seeing what appears to be the Amazons attacking his men, Hercules is quick to assume the worst without pause and flies into a rage that slays every Amazon around him.

Reading these two together, I couldn’t help but see myself. How often, as someone who one day wants to have a family of his own, I’ve let what’s burned me in past relationships defeat me in the present. I leave my study of these labors humbled, with no choice but to own up to how much healing is left to do.

2. True endurance does not look at its watch. 

When the Labors are set, the original intention was that there would be 10 (not 12). But after the 10th Labor, King Eurystheus (the one assigning the tasks with the help of Hera) arbitrarily decides that Labor 2 (Hydra) and Labor 5 (Stables) do not count.

This news is delivered to Hercules at the end of the longest labor—the Cattle of Geryon—where Hercules is asked to go to the edge of the known world and herd the Cattle of Geryon. The journey alone took at least two years. And after killing the Cattle’s monstrous shepherds, Hera sends flies that scatter the Cattle. Gathering them takes another year. 

Unfinished with her menacing, Hera continues to assault Hercules on his way home—throwing hell and high water in his way, intending to deplete his energy and weaken his resolve leading up to the news that she (and Eurystheus) hopes will finally break him: Hercules has two more labors left to go. 

But instead of bowing out, Hercules, instead, bows his head, showing himself to be a paragon of grit and endurance—someone who will go the distance when the distance is unknown. Someone who won’t stop when he’s tired; resting only when he’s done. 

It is this trait that I admire most about Hercules: his enduring and unrelenting will. He stands, for me, as the “unconquerable soul” referenced by William Ernest Henley in his poem “Invictus.”

The character whose head is bludgeoned by chance, “bloody but unbowed.” The one whose spirit, the Hera-like menace of the years “finds, and shall find [], unafraid.” The person whose stance says: “It matters not how strait the gate, [h]ow charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

The figure that fuels my re-dedication to my training and commitment to keep chipping away for as long as it takes. Because there is no clock; there is only the work.

Which leads me to our last lesson.

3. Our labors last a lifetime.

Unlike Hercules, there is not a finite number of labors that sit between us and our potential—there is no point at which we have “made it.” Life, for as long as we have to live it, is a series of unending labors that push us to become more (if we are lucky). 

Some will be chosen for us by fate and some we will choose for ourselves (if we have the courage to dare greatly). Some will come whether we are looking for them or not. But common among them all is that each will hold within a lesson to be learned—a piece of material that might be integrated and used to work us into something more.

We face, before us, an infinite quest for yet unclaimed potentials and unredeemed material within us. In some ways, our lives might be thought of as a search for the missing pieces of who we could be—the treasures guarded by our dragons, waiting to be rescued.

Coming out the other side of this training, you might say I side with certain translations of Rainer Maria Rilke: “the purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.” To “live my life in widening circles,” writes Rilke in a separate poem, “that reach out across the world. I may not complete this last one, but I give myself to it.”

To live a life where we grow in ever-widening circles requires we constantly devote and re-dedicate ourselves to reaching for things that stretch and expand us, tempered by the understanding that there is no end to this process. There is no final destination in this life that waits to receive us—there is only the journey.

And “[o]ur task must be,” wrote Einstein in a letter to his father, “to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion” and courage. 

Conclusion: Daring to Endure and Chasing Defeats

As previewed in my first Pursuit article, there are two great testing points that come in any worthwhile endeavor. It starts, of course, with the decision to dare at all. It’s the choice of Hercules that selects between the hard path (where the possibility of defeat awaits) and the path where victories come easy. I hope beyond hope that you give yourself the gift of making the decision to chase defeats.

But that isn’t the only hard decision you’ll make. You’ll be forced to reaffirm your courage at every turn. Because once you decide to take the hard path and dedicate yourself to a life of growth, the obstacles are only going to get bigger and the enemies will only get stronger. But so are you.

“What I think is that a good life,” writes Joseph Campbell, “is one hero journey after another. Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time,  there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There’s always the possibility of fiasco. But there’s also the possibility of bliss.”

As we leave each other, my wish for you is the same as my hope for myself: that we keep the courage to dare greatly and the will to endure close at hand. That we return to the work of Hercules from time to time, using it as a source of strength and a reminder to look in the mirror. And that we remember that tending to the underdeveloped pieces of us hold the key to living a life of ever-widening circles. 

And that we remember, as the inside of the Rhone Swift Tank I’m wearing in the photo that accompanies this article reminds us, “all bad fortune”—everything that stands between you and what you are aiming at—“is conquered by endurance.”

Until we meet again,

Noah

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