The Toughness Fallacy Kills

I was in conversation with a Jordan Peterson fan, and this listener told me about Peterson’s interview with Wim Hof, dedicated world-record breaker. My comments that follow aren’t about that interview, but about the listener’s impressions of it . . . and then, of course, about some Catholic follow-ons.

So, JP Fan was enchanted by the notion that we moderns are far too coddled, and that we would benefit physically from assorted toughness practices, and here think: Cold showers. Wrapped into the mystique are stories of various real live persons who have undertaken legendary-level feats of extreme toughness, including Wim’s own exploits, but the whole idea is boxed in the reality that human history is mostly a tale of surviving not-comfortable not-modern not-affluent conditions of physical duress. Your ancestors didn’t have hot showers and HVAC.

These facts can be insightful, and maybe you would benefit from cold showers or lowering the thermostat or not eating out-of-season produce. Questions worth asking yourself. The fallacy to watch out for is this: If so-and-so thrived on these conditions of duress, then I will too.

That’s magical thinking that ignores the historical fact that real people die of hypothermia in conditions far less brutal than Wim Hof’s daredevil swims under the ice. The Toughness Fallacy ignores the reality that premature death is part and parcel of living in tough conditions. Some people endure, some people thrive, some people die. That’s what happens when conditions are brutal.

Human bodies vary in their abilities and needs. Be discerning. Maybe you would benefit from less coddling in some area of your life. Maybe you would benefit from being gentler on yourself. Maybe you’re already living in the sweet spot, just tough enough on yourself but not too much. Strangers on the internet cannot know the answer to those questions for you.

The Toughness Fallacy in Catholic Community Life

The physical application of the toughness fallacy is pervasive, but I’m going to leave the exercise of identifying instances for your homework. For Catholics, a much more serious matter is the extent to which Catholic community life is infected with toughness fallacy magical thinking on a spiritual level.

The kind of suffering that hurts souls the most is not exhortations to greater austerity in prayer and fasting, though there are circles where that can be a problem. What drives people from the Church, or keeps them from entering, is the fallacy that “Come on in, it’s terrible!” is good for us.

The available liturgy leaves you cold, and no one will let you do the work to create an opportunity to worship in a way you find meaningful? Good for you!

Unable to make friends at your parish? Good for you!

Inane hurdles that have no bearing on your real spiritual needs laid out as barriers to the sacraments? Good for you!

We’re all St. John of the Cross now! If you can’t take it, you obviously don’t love Jesus.

This is the toughness fallacy. Is it good for you to be constantly coddled on the spiritual level? Of course not. Learning to die to self is fundamental to the pursuit of holiness.

(Curiously, too often it’s those who insist that financial or physical or spiritual barriers to the faith are no big deal and you just need to toughen up a little and muster some dedication turn out to be the same people who have a mountain of excuses for why xyz change that the Church allows, or even encourages, is “just not something we can do.”)

This is a problem across the spectrum in Catholic life. No one liturgical or theological or social faction has a monopoly on this fallacy. And here I emphasize: I am not speaking of the reality that your local parish is made of up humans who can only do so much. I am describing an attitude of shutting the mind to the possibility that felt-needs and expressed-needs are real needs. Just like many people really do need modern medicine in order to survive, many people really do have spiritual needs that toughness-fallacy thinking ignores.

And Then There Were Some

What happens when we dismiss out of hand the spiritual needs of people who aren’t doing well on parish-life-as-usual? Those people leave.

Mostly, those people disappear without a trace. When they can’t find a place in the local parish, they turn to non-Catholic houses of worship or to the secular world. The only sliver that remains trackable are those who flee to extremes on the Catholic margins, right or left.

Those who remain in your parish are the people who are able to endure what’s on offer, directed by a core who thrive on that status quo.

The Everyone-Here-is-Fine Fallacy

As a result, looking around your parish, what you see are the people who are managing with what you’ve got.

No Deaf Mass in your diocese? Well, who needs it — there are no Deaf Catholics here! No mental health support groups? Well, there’s just no demand for that, our parishioners are in great shape! No ministry for LGBT Catholics struggling with the faith? Well you know they all hate Jesus and hang out at the farmer’s market on Sunday mornings, except of course that one lector who keeps it in the closet and we all pretend not to notice.

And on, and on, and on. No one “needs” xyz liturgical, spiritual, or social ministry at your parish because the toughness fallacy has already killed their spiritual life.

How can one person fix all this?

One person cannot fix all this. One parish can’t offer All the Things. One pastor can’t oversee thirty bazillion new ministries. One DRE can’t institute ten different approaches to sacramental prep. One well-meaning volunteer can’t staff eighty different outreaches.

Ultimately, individuals can only do two things: Be available within our abilities, and be open to hope that others will step forward to handle the rest.

The application of that hope requires a willingness to let go of control. If I’m currently the queen bee of parish Bible study or outreach to the homeless or picking the weekend’s four-hymn sandwich, openness to hope means openness to some one else edging onto “my turf”. My hope should be that someone will come along who offers a different Bible study for a different type of student, or begins a different ministry serving the type of poor person my ministry doesn’t serve so well, or takes over responsibility for the music at one Mass a weekend, so that we have eight different hymns on offer.

My openness to hope is something I need to plan on. I can’t serve xyz need, but I fervently pray that someone will come along who can, and when they do, I will support them in whatever way I can. That might be with material assistance, but it might be with just a positive attitude towards expansion and change.

The Toughness Fallacy in Online Discourse

Finally, coming around to next week’s conference, which still has a few more open spaces: Lately the toughness fallacy has been killing the spiritual lives of Catholics looking for hope and encouragement on the internet.

It looks like this: Me? I thrive on the thrill of a rousing argument! Nothing gets my Jesus on more than hashing it out with so-and-so, that evil wrongheaded windbag who claims the name Catholic and it’s my mission in life to debunk! Therefore, anyone who can’t take the heat needs to get out of the kitchen.

Y’all. I have been watching people who were struggling with their faith give up altogether because what they see among widely-read public Catholics is nastiness. They sought out the online Catholic community for support, and got a brawl instead. I have seen how seemingly low-key, quiet corners of the Catholic internet designed to provide that much-needed support get plagued by a level of vehement discourse that is not appropriate in forums that aren’t intended to host debate on contentious issues.

Over the past few weeks my impression of the extent of this problem has been confirmed. I have heard from many who are coming to the Good Discourse conference because they are desperate to find or help create a place where Catholics can interact with good will and charity.

The toughness fallacy kills. It kills physically, and it kills spiritually. If you are interested in being part of the healing process in Catholic discourse, please join us.

File:Feral cat Virginia crop.jpg

I first used this photo of a feral cat to illustrate this post. It seemed time to pull it out again. FYI, I will probably have cats in my zoom presence. Said cats are contentious, ill-mannered, but loveable all the same. Photo credit: w:User:Stavrolo [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Related: If you liked this post, you might like this book on how to reach out to those people who also need Jesus, but don’t yet realize they can find Him in your local parish.