I caution against the habit of basing your moral, ethical, or personal life choices on the wisdom of any fictional character but especially the character of John Dutton, Kevin Costner’s role in the TV show Yellowstone. However, in a recent episode, I heard him say something that caught my attention.
“Fair is a situation where one side gets what they want and the other side is too weak to have any say in the matter.”
When I heard it, I chuckled because it reminded me of something I had read a few years ago in the classic Greek historian Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue and I thought, “huh, the writers of Yellowstone are pretty smart folks.”
Thucydides depicts a conversation, probably fictional, that takes place between the stronger Athenian forces who are about to occupy the small island of Melos, and the island’s town council, who has elected to stay neutral in the war between the two rival Greek city states, Athens and Sparta.
The Spartans had recently made some headway in their occupation of neighboring islands and so the Athenians, in an attempt to shore up their defenses due to a growing asymmetry between their navy and Sparta’s army, decided to bring Melos into the Athenian fold to counteract Sparta’s strategic island hopping.
However, the Melians didn’t think that was fair. As a free and self-governing state, they countered the Athenian threat of occupation with a call towards Athenian pre-war ideals of justice, liberty, and morality. The Athenian delegation disagrees with the Melian’s position, and with a somewhat eerily familiar call of “you are either with us or against us” mentality that seems to echo through all of human history, tells the Melian town council that it has two options – submit or die because that is what the weak must do when the strong have decided what is moral, just, and fair. In other words, the strong do what they will because they can while the weak accept what they must.
Students often read the dialogue in political science, philosophy, and sometimes literature courses to examine the fickle nature of morality and the fluid state of ethics as a cultural phenomenon. Despite Melos’ call towards the “fairness” and the “morality” of their rights of sovereignty, the Athenians could care less. The irony comes when, at some point in their own future, the Athenians find themselves weakened by decades of war and finally at the mercy of their stronger enemy and their fate is determined by the very nature of their actions when they were strong, i.e. they get what they gave.
In the story, the Athenians know that what the Melians are saying is true and that what they are doing will undoubtedly come back upon them because they are an intelligent and extremely insightful society, but they, with an almost post-Modern sense of black humor, respond with a simple: we don’t care because we want what we want now and we can take it so therefore we are doing it because we are the ones in charge and know that whether we take it or not, our futures will be what they will be so, suck it, Melos.
Spoiler alert: the Melians refuse to submit, the Athenians take the city, kill all the adult males, enslave those who don’t die, steal all the women as slaves or concubines, adopt the children into slavery or Athenian households, and take the city under their control for the next 50 or so years until they themselves are beaten by Sparta and are forced to deal with the same fate. I hope you weren’t expecting a happy ending.
An aside: for those history buffs who are currently jumping out of their seats due to my misreading, misremembering, misinterpretation of the cultural and historical accuracy of the Melian Dialogue…take a breath, simmer down, push your reading glasses back up onto the bridge of your nose, and relax. Refer to my post about the truth and it’s rather low impact on the power of a good story here…I am not interested in the accuracy of my memory of the dialogue but rather the influence of that memory on my thoughts and musings today.
All of these thoughts came flooding into my holiday-cookie ladened brain the week we attempted to return to a normal gym schedule after the holiday break and as we had that normalcy flushed down the toilet by some winter weather closures.
I felt that it was a bit unfair to ask people to stay consistent with their workouts with the way the week had been programmed so I tried to quickly shift some things around, re-order some of the WODs, and meet folks where they were with the restrictions of being stuck at home.
But the attempt backfired.
Our social media feed didn’t match our SugarWOD feed didn’t match the plan published on the previous Sunday and in the end, I got confused emails, some complaints, felt a little guilty, angry, frustrated, and realized that by trying to make things “fair” had instead just exasperated an already frustrating situation that left no one happy.
I thought of John Dutton, Thucydides, and all those dead Melians and Athenians just laughing at me as I once again remembered that fairness is the illusion we blind ourselves with when we try to imagine the world we think we deserve to live in rather than looking at the one we actually live in.
And as dark, defeatist, and perhaps depressing as that may sound to some, it’s actually quite freeing, in an almost Stoic way because once we realize that we are all too big, too small, too fast, too slow, too weak, too strong, too WHATEVER to be as good at whatever we are trying to be good at, and we let go of the need to be good, then we are free to be whatever we are at this time, this place, this moment.
I think of the CrossFit methodology as the Athenian retort to the request for Melian fairness. Melos wants Athens to leave them alone but Athens wants what they want and they can take it because they can.
I want thrusters and burpees to get easier the more I do them but they won’t – ever. I will NEVER enjoy those two movements because they are hard whether I am well rested, whether I am sore, whether I am tried, whether I am bloated from too much sugar and salt, whether I am warmed up or not, whether I am cold, whether I am hot, whether I am old, whether I am young.
Thrusters and burpees require what they require because they can and not whether I want them to or not. They are the physical manifestation of the difficulty of the reality of improving my fitness and they require work no matter when or how they are done.
In its uniquely positioned way of delivering a standardized dose of difficulty with those two movements, and movements like them, CrossFit manifests an egalitarian level of pain and suffering for all who participate.
Said another way, whether you do something Rx, scaled, or infinitely modified from what is on the menu for that day, if you show up and participate you will have as fair of a chance of maximizing your individual fitness as the person working next to you. No one gets it easy, but everyone is going to get it if they participate.
So, why the thoughts and musings on this idea of fairness and why the trip back to the classics via a fictional ranch and a somewhat dark and less than ideal pillar of morality in the anti-hero John Dutton?
Amor Fati, my friends. Love what comes rather than what you believe should come and the allure of fairness will quickly evaporate from our never ending sense of suffering. We suffer because we hold onto a belief that we are destined for something or we are entitled to something or we deserve something. This is the illusion of fairness that we strive to obtain at the expense of what actually is.
No more cherry picking. No more attempting to simply do that which we are good at in order to satisfy the needs of our fragile egos at the expense of our fitness. If we desire to come on the day when we like what is programmed then we must accept the requirement to come on the day when we hate that which is programmed. All things come again and again and to desire one without the acceptance of the other is at best basic ignorance and at worst psychopathy.
Fairness and desire for what we want plays no role in the pursuit of our fitness. The wheel of fitness constantly turns and brings what it will and our only hope to live a life of meaning is to love the uncertainty of what comes out of the hopper and to lean into that uncertainty when life is not perceived as fair, to accept that no WOD is good or bad for us but rather that we are here, now, and that there is a WOD to be done and work to be completed. The WOD’s existence is our existence and our existence is manifest in its completion.
And in that, we are certainly treated fairly to the same degree of suffering as all who complete it and if nothing else, that’s perhaps a fairness upon which we can all agree.
See you on the Creek.