How Do You Build a Muscle?

It’s not about exercise, I promise.

I was thinking about this the other day while I was working out (Got a high school reunion coming up, dontcha know). The way you build muscle is to subject it to resistance. Of course, there are different ways of doing this. You can use weights, you can use resistance bands. If you don’t have either of those and don’t want to go to the gym, you can use your own body weight or things around the house. If you want to build muscles in your legs, you could go for walks, especially up hills. In that case, the incline of the hill provides the resistance. The point is, you won’t experience any increases in strength without making your muscles push against resistance.

Let’s look at weight training using barbells and such. Now, if you’re just starting out, you may just want to use an empty bar until your muscles get used to the new activity and your tendons get a little stronger. But, eventually, you’ll want to add weight to the bar or else you’ll never really see any gains in strength. As each level of weights gets easier, you add more weight to the bar to keep making gains. Remember, without your muscles pushing against increasing resistance, you won’t see any strength gains. Once you stop adding weight to the bar, you’ll get to a certain strength level and then stay there. Your endurance may increase, but your overall strength won’t see any significant gains.

Oddly enough, it’s the same with mental muscles. Any opinions, beliefs, or societal positions you may embrace will only be as strong as the resistance you face against them. Without facing the resistance, you’ll never get any stronger.

But it seems like, these days, we’re becoming a nation of people who only want to work with an empty bar. When we disassociate ourselves from anyone who disagrees with one of our positions, either by ending communication with them, “unfriending” them on social media, or maybe even trying to get them banned from social media, all we’re doing is taking all the weight off the bar so that we can feel good about being able to lift it. The problem is, that means you never get any stronger (i.e. able to defend and prove your opinion, belief, or societal position). We eliminate any dissent in our life and enclose ourselves in echo chambers where the only positions we hear mirror our own.

Suppose, just for example, a belief we have is in error, maybe because it’s been based on incorrect or incomplete information. When someone comes along and manages to bypass the gatekeepers of our echo chamber, they completely destroy our position, leaving us questioning everything we’ve believed, even though most of what we believe may be right. They’ve added weight to our bar that we weren’t strong enough to lift.

Or, maybe they’re wrong and we’re right on this issue, but they’ve had more practice interacting and debating with people who hold to our position. Because they’ve faced the resistance, built up those mental muscles, their arguments and points have us questioning our position, even if our position is correct. The only way to show them the error of their position is for us to build up our mental muscle until we’re strong enough to lift that bar and hold our own in an actual discourse. And the only way to do that is to face resistance. We have to engage with others who may not share our beliefs in order to build our own mental muscle and, in some cases, to be able to prove that our position is the correct one (or realize that we’re wrong and we need to rethink our position).

When I say “engage with” them, I’m not talking about calling them names, belittling them or their heritage or threatening their dog. I mean talk TO them and, even more importantly, LISTEN to them. Examine their points. Why are they taking that position? If there are flaws in what they say, find them so that you can use that information later (because you’ve gotten stronger) and you can feel more secure in your own position, knowing that you’ve faced resistance and overcome it. And remember, this isn’t a “one and done” proposition. If we really want to build that muscle, we have to stick with it. We have to keep engaging with those whose opinions differ from ours, examine their arguments to find the flaws (if there are any). And, also, critically examine our own arguments to see if there are any cracks there that we need to patch up. Do the research, both for and against your position. In debate class we learned that if we want to build the strongest case FOR a position, practice debating AGAINST it. Find the flaws, the weaknesses, and shore them up.

Unless we’re willing to meaningfully engage with others who don’t share our opinions, we’ll never get any stronger in our own positions. We’ll always be weak, thinking we’re big stuff because we can lift an empty bar until someone who works with a lot of weights on the bar comes along and completely destroys our beliefs and opinions, and sometimes, our entire self-image.

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