MANY of you may, like me, be somewhat in awe of Eddie Izzard’s 43 marathons in 51 days in aid of Sport Relief. Like most people I have never run even one marathon, a half marathon completed in 1 hour 53 minutes being the pinnacle of my running “career” to date.
Mr Izzard was not previously noted for his physical prowess; indeed, one could be so unkind as to describe him as being on the “tubby” side. So to achieve what he did is quite simply remarkable and a testament to the physical and in particular the mental strength of the human being.
Mental strength is an interesting and difficult to define trait. We all know people who we believe to be mentally strong but it is not easy to know for certain that we are right in our belief.
The much-repeated example of the duck progressing serenely across the pond with hardly a ripple whilst unseen its legs are working 16 to the dozen below the surface of the water, is a useful metaphor for what may be happening in the minds of many people, particularly in this brave new world in which we now live.
People who, on the surface at least, appear to be coping, even thriving, in the environment in which they find themselves. Yet just beneath that calm exterior they are falling apart.
It is well documented that vets succumb to more than their fair share of mental health issues, leading to one of the highest suicide rates of any homogeneous group of people. What is still not clear is exactly why that should be so.
Various “theories” have been put forward, some more generous and sympathetic than others, but no scientifically “proven” reason appears to have been identified. In my view, the somewhat oversimplified assertion that it is largely due to too much work for not enough pay is probably fairly close to the truth.
So what is it about the human mind that enables an apparent non-athlete to perform a truly heroic feat of endurance, yet is not strong enough to regulate and sustain the mental health of highly-educated people? I think that much of it comes down to the simple concept of being in control of one’s own destiny.
Because if you have control of what you are doing, then anything becomes possible. The only limiting factor is your own enthusiasm and desire to succeed. Take away our control over what is happening in our lives and we become more disorientated, anxious, and indeed resistant to what is happening around us.
In the modern world it appears that we are increasingly losing control of our own lives. It is hardly possible to function if one tries to remain anonymous. Every phone call we make to query the authorities about absolutely anything requires us to give our post code from which the person at the other end of the phone quickly identifies us as who we say we are. All very efficient, I am sure, but something about the whole process grates with me more than just a little bit.
Because I don’t particularly want every Tom, Dick and Harry who I have never met (and have no intention of meeting) knowing more about me than I know about them.
That is why I have so far resisted the temptation to sign up on Facebook and the like: I simply don’t want relative strangers asking if I would like to be their friend.
This loss of control is an increasingly bigger part of our lives both as individuals but as professional persons as well.
Regulation is necessary, of course, in order to maintain recognised and auditable standards. But over-regulation simply creates a rather bland soup where trying to be an individual, even an eccentric individual (heaven forbid), is frowned on and indeed discriminated against.
It is no longer good enough to allow the public to choose whether they like the skills and temperament of the vet (or other professional) on the corner of their street. That vet must somehow be able to demonstrate exactly what level of expertise he or she is alleged to possess.
And that’s where it all goes pretty pear-shaped in my view. Many people simply can’t cope with the level of scrutiny levelled at them by society at large and by the regulatory system more specifically. And not necessarily because they can’t match up to expectations thrust on them, because many of them can.
No, the biggest problem is not the scrutiny per se, more that the scrutiny has an undermining and dehumanising effect on the person being scrutinised. Like those contestants on a familiar pop quiz on Radio 2 never tire of saying, “It’s far harder when you’re on the radio.”
For most of us (OK, not for the bigheads), it’s usually far harder to do anything when we’re being closely monitored. That is partly because control has been taken out of our own hands and into the hands of he (or she) who is doing the monitoring.
If we don’t have control then we start to worry about things that are generally unimportant to what we are really trying to achieve. And that has a drip, drip, demoralising effect on us.
If Eddie Izzard had had someone telling him exactly how many miles he had to run in exactly how many hours and how often he was allowed to rest, then I suspect that he would have stopped running marathons after only the first few days.
Only by allowing individuals to determine for themselves exactly how they are to perform, can true greatness be encouraged to flourish.