Vitality, like so many other powerful words, has been diluted in meaning.
Everything from skin cream to energy drinks promises vitality. The true meaning of the word is altogether more primal and immediate, and not something so easily commodified into cartoon wings or a portable Fountain of Youth available for only three easy payments of $29.99.
Vitality, noun; the power giving continuance of life, present in all living things.
Words have power; they are vital to the continuance of thought. Emotions have power; they are vital to what it is to be human. Vitality is not only present at the fundamental level of life in seeds and microbes, but the intangible experience of humanity is suffused with countless examples of qualities that are vital to a quality existence.
Vitality does not come from our creature comforts or the delicate embrace of modernity. It does not come from our exercise routines. It does not come from our failures or our successes. It is, simply put, that which our best selves cannot do without. It may indeed be a guilty pleasure, an extra set of reps at the gym or a cosmetic treatment, but the thing itself is not what is vital. Rather, it is the power that thing generates.
Rub some dirt in it and take a lap!
Humans are, without a doubt, one of the most adaptable organisms on the planet. Where our biology forbids, our command of technology allows. We have been to the bottom of the ocean and to the edge of the sky and beyond. A day’s march is now a quick drive. We fly in flocks every day, migrating across the globe in jet-propelled aircraft. We live in the Arctic just as we live in the desert. Qualities that would take hundreds of thousands of years to evolve in nature we cobble together in a matter of decades or centuries. It is a great irony that as a species we relish the challenge of exploring the limits of science, often we do not apply this same drive to explore the self.
The endless cycle of information stimulating our pleasure centers is a lullaby that has only become louder in the last two decades, and it’s easy to fall asleep. When faced with adversity, it’s easier than ever to scuttle into a neon shell, going deeper with every sling or arrow life pitches at you.
Some of the funniest and best advice I’ve ever heard is the phrase, “Rub some dirt in it and take a lap!” Not exactly something one would expect to hear today, in the age of helicopter parenting and increasingly fragile sensibilities, which is unfortunate. It encourages self-reliance, realism, and a certain healthy gallows humor.
We all fall down, it’s inevitable. Failure is important to us as humans because our method of dealing with it is vitality incarnate. If you become sluggish, wounded and resentful at the outrage of the very same experiences countless thousands of others have faced, are facing and will face, you cease to move forward.
The slug is an apt metaphor: if you slow to a crawl, focused on your wounds, it is that much easier for life to pile the salt on. The healthy response, whether we like it or not, is to examine our failure, glean some vital experience and hustle up. Life isn’t waiting on you.
Regular Self Care
Before you brush yourself off, take that moment of introspection and add some self-care.
If failure and disappointment are the disease, the only person that can truly cure it is you. Physician, heal thyself.
As much as those around you care for you, you’re going to know what will help get you through tough times better than most. Loved ones may lead you to water, but it’s up to you to drink. It may be a book, a quick trip out of town, or a drink with friends. It might even be a simple as a shower and a nap.
If you don’t take the time to be kind to yourself while you’re dusting yourself off, you’re bound to fall again in short order. Great leaps and bounds and overnight successes are a myth, the grand curtain covering up countless hours of thought, focus, work, and active self-love. How you treat yourself will reflect on how you treat the world around you.
Self-care allows you to set yourself up for success. You won’t win every time, but when you rush into a race half-cocked and out of shape, you’re stacking the deck against yourself.
Take time out to reward yourself for what you have accomplished. The novel might not be done, the funding level might not be reached, but allowing for self-care keeps you invigorated.
Fuel Your Fire
There’s an old story about two woodsmen, one old and one young. The younger woodsman brags that he can cut more wood in a day than the elder, and the elder agrees to a wager. The junior woodsman plunges into the effort with great zeal, relishing in his youthful strength. The elder woodsman coolly approaches his work at a modest but steady pace. The day drags on as the two continue to add to their respective piles, but the younger woodsman notices that every hour, the elder goes behind a shed for several minutes. At the end of the day, the younger and stronger woodsman is pouring sweat, chest heaving over an impressive stockpile of timber. He looks over to the grey-haired veteran of the woods, who barely has a glisten of sweat on his brow, standing next to a stack nearly twice as large. The younger woodsmen, shaken by the sight, approached the victor of the wager and asked how he was able to accomplish such a feat. The older woodsman quietly explained that every hour he had been cleaning and sharpening his tools.
Self-care is vital because it sharpens your tools. Five or ten minutes of meditation a day will help keep you focused, just as regular vitamins will help keep your body humming in peak condition. The things that leave us feeling energized, engaged and vital are not just part of self-care, they can be the fuel to your fire.
It’s not the act of self-care itself that’s vital, but the feeling and power derived from it. The inspiration we feel after hearing a powerful song, seeing a gifted speaker, or contemplating art is maximized when we live with intention.
Walking numbly through a museum is the equivalent of binge-watching a show you’re only mildly interested in. There’s no shortage of data, entertainment, art, beauty, music and love out there. Honing in on what really drives you is an investment, and every intentional experience you deposit is a force-multiplier.
Actively seek out what brings you joy and energy and then manifest it. Start small with a walk or playing with your cat, then take the feeling it gives you and use it as fuel to propel you forward.
Every bit of an observed life is another seed that will someday bear fruit. Every moment of intentionality tills the fields. Once you have your fields in relative order, it’s time to think bigger and weed out that which drains you to make room for the massive trees you’re cultivating. Work towards a better employment situation, utilize the classroom of the internet and put yourself through school, distance yourself from those that attract and cause unhealthy drama. As you continue, you’ll harvest the fruit of your labor.
Eventually, some trees lose their vitality as your interests evolve, but as your abilities grow and your experience deepens, the seeds you plant will promise progressively grander trees, more luscious fruit. The trees that have withered only add more fuel to the fire as you learn from those experiences and clear them away to make room for the expanding wilderness of you.
The Brass Ring
Working towards a higher ideal is perhaps the defining and most vital trait of humanity. Without our pursuit of improvement, none of what we enjoy as a species today would be possible.
The thrill of new heights and challenges are the very foundation of human history. Taking this same ceaseless pursuit and applying it to your own being is in itself power, utilizing your agency over yourself to the fullest extent.
Every accomplishment, every failure is a vital experience that gives our character depth and our lives meaning. Every brass ring obtained gives humanity as a whole that much more vitality and hope.