Friday, October 26, 2012

Fierceness: A Self-Regarding Virtue

 "Though she be but little, she is fierce!"  William Shakespeare,  A Midsummer Night's Dream
Fierce  /   fierc·er, fierc·est 
1. a : violently hostile or aggressive in temperament
    b : given to fighting or killing : pugnacious
2. a : marked by unrestrained zeal or vehemence <a fierce argument>
    b : extremely vexatious, disappointing, or intense <fierce pain>
3. : furiously active or determined <make a fierce effort>
4. : wild or menacing in appearance
fierce·ness noun
Fierceness. It's often seen as a violent, irrational drive that clouds good judgement and causes us to fall into error and vice. In a woman, this is particularly distasteful, unfeminine, unnatural and frowned upon. But sometimes fierceness is exactly what is called for, especially when dealing with our own inner demons and weaknesses, or when we are striving for the best we have in us. Sometimes fierce is precisely what I really want to be. 

There are those days when I "get my grrrrrrr on", as I like to say, and I go after what I want without a seconds thought - without hesitation - without self-consciousness. And on those days I feel in my groove and completely in-synch with myself. It happens in running when I feel the effort and I welcome the feeling of pushing it and the pleasingly painful fatigue that comes with it. It happens in climbing when I'm completely focused on the next move and the moment and not thinking about being scared or falling or the beginning or the end. Just being there in that moment and having no doubt about what I'm after.

I had this experience climbing last night. As I've said many times, I'm probably 'naturally' a better climber than I am a runner, but running is my first love. Climbing, however, is my evil little infatuation (perhaps another love - okay, I'm torn) that still has the power to get my blood running hot. And so I found myself tying in beneath a 5.12  (a moderately difficult grade) last night at the gym and for some reason I wanted to onsight it ('onsight' means you complete the climb without falling on your first try and without any prior knowledge of the route). Now, my climbing has taken a bit of a hit this year because of all the running I've been doing, and so while this grade would not be that difficult for me to do, first try, when in decent climbing shape, I haven't been feeling in decent climbing shape for some time.  

Why did it suddenly occur to me that I wanted to do this route? I have no idea. But as I set off I went into a zone that I wish I could willfully cultivate in myself - and yet, it hits without warning - and the only term that seems to describe this experience is focused fierceness. All I cared about, all that existed in those moments, was the next move. A saw nothing else. I thought of nothing else. And on my hardest routes I've had this experience. I get to the top and I'm almost at a loss for how I got there. I literally don't remember getting there. Some call this "flow", but when I'm in the midst of it I feel fierce - and that's all I feel.

I am also fierce when it comes to my opinions, my family, my values, my friends - and all the things that matter to me. Several years ago I was walking my dog, and I came upon a group of five children, I'd say 6 to 9 years old, smashing bottles in a culvert along a trail. I stopped and asked them what they were doing and why they were doing it? They looked at me, startled, their mouths wide open. They said nothing. Then one little boy said, "Well, you don't have to be so fierce". I found this a very curious comment, because the only thing I did was calmly ask them a question. I wasn't yelling, I wasn't demanding, I wasn't reprimanding. I was just asking a question. So why was this fierce? I was vexed.

Shortly after this episode I was discussing with one of my classes the issue of passing by when something bad is happening and whether you have any duty to say/do something. Most agreed that you 'ought' to say something, but they weren't sure they would actually act on that 'ought' (the bad news, morally speaking, is that an 'ought' means you must do it - but they always hate that part). I used the example of the children smashing bottles to illustrate the situation. The fact is that there were many other people out on that trail that day. They all passed by without saying anything. I was hoping that my class would help me understand why they did that. Why didn't anyone stop and do something...say something? One student said "No one would do that but you." That was a jarring and disturbing comment that I still don't understand or accept. One of my aims in teaching is to encourage students be aware and perhaps just a little agitated about the way things sometimes are, and to act on what they believe, whatever that might be.

Cultivate the fierceness! Be a fierce defender of what you hold near and dear. Pursue your passions with absolute fierceness of heart and soul...Passions, values...that's what makes life meaningful. That's what's makes you YOU...

So, I guess I'm wondering if anyone else out there feels this way, especially women. Have I just got it all wrong? Am I weird?

And when it comes to my opinions, I seem to have no problem cultivating this fierceness - though there are many times I regret my outspokenness because I'm more sensitive than I want to be and it all eats at me like acid on a cream-puff. But with running (and climbing) it's even more difficult. So the trick is being able to call on this fierceness when I need it not just whenever it happens to feel like visiting. And so I've been working on training this into myself. I'm not sure it's working, and I still allow so many things to chase it away: self-doubt, naysayers, the past, expectations...But there have been days when I've conjured fierceness out of a funk, when thing shouldn't have gone well but did. And I will feed off of this...I will try to make this a new habit.

Many runners use mantras to recall a calmness or to remind them of what they're after. Fierceness and calm determination can go hand in hand, and that's what I find I am in constant search of. And so I'm working on a new mantra to remind myself of this thing that is sometimes buried deep inside. I will dig her out when I need her.  

“Are you frightened of me?' asked Ironclaw. 'No. Why should I be?' 'I'm very fierce,' said the brazzle, with some pride. 'All brazzles are fierce. They have to be, they guard hoards of gold. And they peck people's eyes out. Only when necessary, you understand.' 'Have you ever pecked someone's eyes out?' Ironclaw looked sheepish. 'No. But I could if I wanted to.' Felix smiled.” ~ Elizabeth Kay The Divide


  1. I think that might be my problem taking things to the "next level." I don't ever feel very fierce. I hold my opinions mostly to myself. The only time I feel fierce is when I am defending my children. I do have some Momma Bear in me. But my own running etc? Nope. I would love to take up rock climbing, but am so nervous to do so.

    I definitely admire your "fierceness."

  2. Reading the part about your class makes me think that post-modernism is turning us into a bunch of wimps.


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