The golden cage
Updated: Oct 8, 2022
“We can quickly get somewhere. That’s why “6-minute abs” is so powerful. You may get some results from it but it’s not permanent. The permanent result comes from you—and I say it all the time—you have to suffer. You have to make that a tattoo on your brain, so when the hard time comes again, you don’t forget it.”
— David Goggins*
This quote will sound extreme to many. Others will brand it as exaggerated, unnecessary, and even dangerous. The rest will just not understand it.
For some time now I have felt some discomfort, some itching every time I hear people calling certain standards, challenges, or goals “impossible” and “unattainable”. Time after time I hear the increasingly frequent condemnation of tireless dedication, unwavering consistency, discipline that knows no objections, and the pursuit, without hesitation, of what our hearts yearn for.
We live in a world where, more and more, everyone –and everything– around us aims to facilitate our existence. We buy appliances to save time, such as washing machines or dishwashers. We no longer need to remember the phone numbers of our family and friends, because a device does it for us. We get our food via “delivery”, buy our books, clothes, or Christmas gifts online, and even have the luxury of requesting a car to pick us up if we don’t feel like driving. And since, despite all the appliances we buy to save time, it becomes increasingly scarce, we "commit" to following an exercise routine of 10 minutes a day, 4 days a week and, upon verifying that our efforts do not produce immediate, almost magical effects, we opt to consume “slimming” pills or teas, which loudly claim that by consuming them we will never need to perform a single crunch or take care of how we nourish –or undernourish– our bodies.
Everything is easy. Everything is immediate. Everything is comfortable.
We live, entranced, inside a room of gold. The problem is, in our blindness, we ignore that that room is nothing but a cage. Golden and comfortable, but a cage nonetheless. A cage of sweetened lies and suffocating mediocrities.
In true success, the one with value, the worthwhile one that makes us and those around us better, there is no room for mediocrity. Similarly, there is no place for victimization as an excuse for failure.
What is valuable has value. That's why it costs. Pills, appliances, and gym memberships have no value, they have a price.
Value is something else. Something different that cannot be bought, even though the world is full of tycoons whose poverty is such that they only have material wealth.
That is why so much frustration surrounds us. A frustration that’s the child of emptiness, which is the spawn of what’s easy. It is always much simpler to accept our weaknesses than to dare to face them.
Acceptance does not equal lack of change
We live in a world in which, as never before, “self-acceptance” is preached to us. As positive as this message seems to be, behind its preaching lies the subtle idea of escaping accountability to face and change what needs to be changed. “You are perfect just the way you are” is a mantra that is repeated ad-nauseam, trying to silence any opposing voice. Why can't we accept that two contrary ideas can exist simultaneously? It is possible to value and love ourselves the way we are, without failing to realize our need for improvement in certain areas.
We just don't want to get out of the cage.
We do not want to surrender our contentment, even if it is only an illusion. The possibility of discomfort takes precedence over the hope of improvement. The fear of pain and failure outweighs the desire for change, triumph, and achievement. Moreover, the frustration of our confinement feeds our anxiety, just as routine and inertia exacerbate our depression.
So there comes a day when we realize—or decide to accept—that we are locked in a cage and what we thought was gold is just rusty, corroded metal.
Citing Mr. Goggins again, "Becoming civilized is the worst thing that can happen to a man." That condition of "civilized" does not refer to being peaceful, refined, or sociable. Goggins is talking about complacency, about looking around and settling for what we have, be it material things or personal achievements, and let this fill us with a false and hollow sense of accomplishment. That acceptance imprisons our wild, rebellious and adventurous selves. It shackles the warrior who is not satisfied even when successful, because he knows that growth is not a path with a defined end and that the absence of challenges is synonymous with death.
In the long run, all cages shrink, and the only reason we continue to fit inside them is that we also shrink along.
My father once told me that "resignation is the first shovelful of dirt that we throw on our dreams’ graves." Every time we resign ourselves to a lower standard, we are setting a new height on the quality bar of our lives, lower, lesser, more mediocre. That moment of resignation is the one that will lead us to a second, and a third, until we will have moved so far away from what used to be our peak that climbing back will be virtually impossible for us.
Cages are always cages. They do not lose their prison quality because of their excessive luxury or comfort. Life is much more than that. With our failures and mistakes, defeats on our backs, and even those disappointments that hurt us the most, the rebellion against statism and against "the hand that was dealt to us" must always be our north pushing forward, aspiring to more.
Living is more. Wanting is more.
Acceptance and conformity are two different things. The first comes from wisdom and teaches us to recognize where we are, to differentiate our strengths from our weaknesses. It helps us not to lie to ourselves or deny reality, but without using it as an excuse for capitulation. Acceptance teaches us humility as we learn to recognize who we are, and where we are. Conversely, conformity will always try to convince us that what we are is all that we can become and that the place we are in, and the situation that surrounds us, are the best we can aspire to.
That is why I insist: do not settle. Don't let yourself be civilized. It’s not worth it.
* David Goggins (February 17, 1975, Buffalo, NY), is an American ultramarathon runner, ultra-distance cyclist, triathlete, public speaker, and author. He is a retired United States Navy SEAL and former United States Air Force Tactical Air Control Party member who served in the Iraq War. His memoir, Can't Hurt Me, was released in 2019.