The Limits of Will

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Illustration by Chris Gash

On knowing when to persist, and when to resist.

By Nick Lyons

Recently I watched a runner in a steeplechase event fall to the track halfway through the race, which seemed clearly to be over for him. But he picked himself up far behind the others, and against all odds willed himself to win, which he did.

I have long admired such willpower. It’s the engine that provides the power for so much in our lives—the will to learn, to train one’s body to excel in a chosen sport, to do two more push-ups when your body says “no more,” to invent, to conquer in war or sport, to walk or run farther, to survive in any of a hundred ways, to complete a thorny project, to be perfectly still, to grow, and even, for a stout fellow like me, to control what I eat. Will is needed to build a business or a boat, save a marriage, finish an essay or novel or poem—or even finish reading one of those.  

I once picked peaches in a Colorado orchard, and as I groped clumsily and slowly for the fruit, I watched a family at the next tree. Their skilled hands and determination, working fast and even faster, picked their tree clean. I earned $7 for a long, weary day, and left more peaches on the tree than I picked. The others, using their intense will and skill, filled eight orange crates and earned more than a dozen times as much, apiece. They knew how to pick and needed the money more, perhaps needed it to survive.

I sat next to the great runner Roger Bannister at the training table during the Penn Relays in 1951 in which he competed. No one had run a mile in less than four minutes, nor did he do so at Franklin Field. But I vividly remember him leaning closer to me and telling me, with quiet resolution in his voice, that he would surely do so soon—accomplishing what thousands of gifted runners had failed to do for centuries. And then a few years later he did. 

I love to watch a great swimmer or runner with a will to win break a longstanding record. And I love the will of a sports team composed of members all working in concert, driving to win a place in some local or national record book. The pole vaulter, alone, charges that elevated horizontal bar, with his long pole brandished like a lance, urging his body a few inches higher than ever before—it is a magnificent poetry, the lathed arc of his sideways turn over the bar. That vault is like a push beyond common thought, a single willing of all he is, in that one effort, to do the impossible.

And I love the literature of all such acts: the record of Peary’s Antarctic pursuits; Slavomir Rawicz’s struggle to find freedom in his book The Long Walk; the titular Martin Eden in Jack London’s novel, vying to change himself from an untutored sailor into a serious and successful writer by severe will, learning how many hours he can fruitfully study—with less and less sleep. Beethoven, when he went deaf, still wrote brilliant music. “In the Will work and acquire,” says Emerson, “and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance,” and willed a life free from all arbitrary threats. (Maybe.)

But too much will, like too much ambition, can be corrosive, unfruitful, even dangerous. Think of the captains of industry who too often replace “enough” with “more,” who want a $20 million apartment rather than their measly $10 million space. Think of the demagogues and dictators who seek power through will and can never get enough of it—say Mussolini, Napoleon, or those of any stripe who think they can get whatever they want by willing it.

I once worked at a summer camp run by a demon worker who demanded that those who worked for him do likewise. Mostly I kept up with him and bought his frantic ethic, which could be demanding and exciting. One day I pointed out to Max that there was a large patch of poison ivy near the main office. Sadly, I’m an expert on the nasty plant, having been cursed by it half a dozen times. I’d had to douse myself with calamine lotion and sometimes even aerospace glue, which made me look like a leper until it had strangled the noxious rashes. Years earlier I had vowed to keep my distance. When I told Max about his ivy garden, he shouted (his usual way of explaining anything), “Nick, get your ass out there and pull it all out by the roots.  And be quick about it, kid.”

I told him quietly that I would not do it. I knew I might be fired, but I would no more charge into that weed than into a hornets’ nest.

He turned on me and shouted, with a mocking sneer. “Poison ivy! It’s all in your mind. A little willpower, Nick. Get out there!”

I just shook my head. 

“Well,” he said, “come out with me.” I followed at a safe distance. He wasted no time. He plunged into the bright green patch and began to pull the plants out by the roots. And then, laughing, he rubbed the leaves all over his hands, arms, and neck, on his nearly bald scalp, on his face. He smirked and said, “See? See that? Willpower. I did the whole thing in 15 minutes, kid.”

I guess you know what happened. Two days later the man had the single worst case of poison ivy I have ever seen. It was monstrous. Lesions heaped upon lesions burned bright red behind a film of white calamine lotion. Those on his face oozed.

He looked like that for several weeks, and much as I’d have loved to give him at least one “I told you so,” I resisted. I worked beside him much of that time but never mentioned the word “will” to him again—or heard him use it. But for many years, whenever I’ve thought of Emerson or Peary or Martin Eden, or had news of someone trading “enough” for “more,” I’ve smiled and thought of Max.

Nick Lyons W’53 is a longtime Gazette contributor.

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