There he was in the middle of Boylston Street in Boston, one of the busiest downtown thoroughfares in the city on a bustling summer Sunday. Throngs of shoppers and post-brunch strollers crowded the sidewalks all around him and his girlfriend, ensuring that this sport where he parked his gigantic, shiny Harley was in no way discrete.
The dude would have stood out regardless of parking in the middle of it all. he was one of those hyper-steroided muscle freaks you typically only see in pictures; arms the size of most human's thighs, pecs that looked like cantaloupes strapped to his chest, and every muscle carved out in definition like stonework. It was that look that many, many people say is "so big that it is ugly," I am guessing maybe 280 pounds of over-swollen human. And indeed, most on the sidewalk were smitten with side-eye glances; neither wanting to seem rude by staring but unable to avoid looking at this monster of a human.
But it was what he was doing that brought an already hyper-masculine image into a level of preposterousness. Apparently he found the need to change his T-shirt. Right there on the sidewalk, just after parking his motorcycle with his lady friend. Now, a quick-swap of a t-shirt ope an 85º day is not unheard of in a summer-friendly city like Boston. It's a pedestrian city so filled with natural spaces and athletics that a few shirtless fellows are bound to pop up here and there in the cityscape on the hottest days. But when you are built with a back so broad and over-muscled that it looks like a sack of watermelons with a head on top, well, taking off a shirt becomes a spectacle.
And I think that is actually kind of what he was going for.
No, I am certain he was trying to get attention. Here was a rare human freak, and clearly proud of his creation. He was beyond just a conglomerate of hyper-masculine icons – he was well into the absurdist exaggeration of those ideas. His appearances silently screamed out a desperate demand for acknowledgement. This was manhood as high opera; machines taken to sci-fi fantasy levels. There was no doubt: this guy was gonna milk this moment . . .
And milk it he did, much to the consternation of those just trying to pass by on their way to whatever red Sox game or Newbury Street store they were off to. This dude REALLY took his time putting a shirt back on, glancing around frequently just to check that he was getting gawked at by pedestrians.
Which, indeed, he was. Mission: accomplished.
But I could simultaneously see the scowls and guffaws and disdainful shaking of heads by these same passers-by. As much as the bodybuilder was getting what he wanted – excessive attention via a shock to the visual – he was meanwhile also inciting so, so much frustration, disgust, and what I can only imagine was, in some cases pity; pity that a man could be so overwhelmingly consumed by his insecurity as to need to stage an entire production just for a few moments of awareness that he has created something of impact.
Not many of us can relate to that level of freakish muscle size and leanness of this dude I saw on Boylston Street, but the majority of us can probably relate to that moment of frustration, when you see someone foisting their shallow excesses gratuitously into a social moment, just for the self-satisfaction of "being seen." The obnoxious over-revving of a motorcycle on an echoing, narrow street; the intentionally ear-piercing, squealing hoots of a bunch of women out for a night of debauchery; the demanding confrontations os sports fans yowling excitement into a strangers face on game day; we all know examples of humans interrupting other humans just to get some petty attention.
It is a form of guerrilla social affirmation; it is a way to use shock, surprise and even awe (as in the case of our gigantically muscled example) just to feed a greed within us. We want attention, we get attention. From kids lighting off firecrackers late at night to people posting selfies on Instagram, we are all familiar with it.
And we are all so often put off by it.
Just as often as we see the excessive, shallow displays for attention in life, we hear about how "ignorant" or "foolish" it is. In fact, it sometimes seems I see more commentary deriding show offs than I see sho-offs themselves. I mean, I hear tons of guys talking about how obnoxious it is to show off the body, and yet I rarely see dudes like Mr. Motorcycle Muscle. In fact, I can't really recall ever seeing a shirtless muscle behemoth so casually out in downtown.
The more I thought on it, the more I realized that show offs are the minority, And yet we have a social media landscape consumed with consternation for their existence. It seems the frequency of frustration far outweighs the frequency of incident.
Now, I agree that there is a rather sizable social damage done when the petty, greedy, self-indulgent are left to run amok in society. It creates selfishness and aggression; it encourages cruelty in the form of disregard for others. If we let the show-offs and ego-preeners off the hook too lightly, well, then we run the risk of allowing society to turn deeply in compassionate. The price impact of excessive greediness and ego-indulgence is a society that has lost it's empathy.
But what about the level of anxiety about the show offs? Could our frustration be creating another form of damage? Could our incessant disdain for these masturbatory creatures be causing us to develop shorter patience, nastier social regard, and a culture of shame-first, ask-questions-later?
Very often, for example, in fitness-focused media we see people foist a cruel and harsh disregard for those who preen and posture. Bolstered by the righteous authority of "having the facts," voices from the fitness-world very often mock and deride people like our shirtless muscle beast friend. The focus of the derision is that his excesses – his use (abuse?) of pharmaceuticals for a cosmetic effect, his insecurity-driven imagery, his self-entitled interruption with an agenda for attention – are all distractors from the "real work" of fitness and training. And to a large extent this idea is true; focusing on the petty and indulging our insecurities does undermine our ability to achieve healthful fitness or athletic progress. However, the vitriol foisted upon those who have the shallow motives is sometimes, unto itself, it's own tidal wave of obnoxiousness.
Too often, I see those of physique accomplishment become inflamed with a resentful, judgmental regard for any form of self-indulgent presentation. There is a nasty, back-biting tone that begins to manifest in the voices of the "fitness authorities," and it too often is belittling and shaming. What starts out as a compassionate warning to avoid indulging excesses gradually snowballs into a harsh wave of insults and callous disregard for others. The original intention is a sensible caution to not fall into the trap of over-self-indulgence. But the outcome often encourages a very impatient intolerance towards those who may have committed the act of taking off their shirt and showing off their abs on a hot summer day.
Can we replace one foible for another and really say we are "compassionate"? Can we effectively swap out a culture of self-centered ego-preening with a society of shaming harshness and say we're "healthier?"
At what point does the disgust with shallow display become ironically more dangerous than the original displays themselves? Can we somehow still offer warning against indulging the ego while promoting a sense of compassionate warmth in the world? Perhaps.
A proof that this balance can be struck is found with one of the better satirists of the day is the comedian Mike Tornabene, who is the creator of the very popular YouTube series BroScience, along with his partner Gian Hunjan. The focus of the satire revolves around a fictional character, Dom Mazzetti, who encompasses all the foibles of a musclebound ego gone awry. But what makes the satire so effective is that Mike and Gian clearly have an affectionate compassion for the world they spoof. They are teasing, not deriding; they are mocking the blunders, not shaming the mistakes. They illustrate how a little tolerance towards the ego-centric can go a long way to creating some joy and appreciation in the world.
So there is, after all, perhaps an ironic benefit to a little more tolerance of the show-offs. If we can be a little less aggressive and knee-jerk towards shutting down every form of grandstanding, we can actually promote a sense of understanding and tolerance in the world.
And understanding each other and tolerance towards our diverse experience is an incredibly essential thing in society, right now and always.
In my coaching work there is a strong focus on this strange balance between not over-indulging the ego yet finding patient tolerance for the occasional display of excess. Like the comedy duo of Mike & Gian, the tool we apply is most often humor. This stuff is funny. But we must not solely focus laughter at the blunders of the physique world's insecure ego-monsters. At a point, we must laugh with them. Why? Because, let's face it, we can totally identify with the, There is some of what they are doing in all of us.
Every one of us makes mistakes driven by insecurity. We all act foolish from time to time due to a desire for attention. Every one of us. So we mustn't ever think we are that far removed from a mass-monster eager to have his bare biceps ogled on a busy street. We may not have gone that far down the path, but let's be real: we all take a few steps down that road from time to time.
And this is where our impatience comes from. When we do act the fool via our insecurity we feel dumb. It is embarrassing and frustrating. Sometimes, our gams for attention make us positively want to crawl under a rock. It is a part of our natural human experience that is so easy to resent when found within us, so of course it is easy to resent when we see it in the world around us. because we can identify with the behavior, it is easy to take our frustrations out on it when we see it around us.
Which is why maybe a practice of higher tolerance could actually benefit us. If we could learn to be more tolerant of those little off-putting moments, we might be able to train a whole set of skills that have more use than just "don't be an egotist." We can learn patience. We can engender kindness. We can expand humor and laughter. We can feel at ease.
Yeah, a practice of tolerance – even tolerance of the twits, idiots and fools – will benefit us far further than will trying to call-out and deride all forms of ego-inflation around us. yes, we ought not let the egotists run amok, but we must not practice policing them to such an extend that we train impatience and intolerance.
In short, if we want to make gains in our life, we have to learn to tolerate and even love what is ugly.
We must find a temperate patience for what is frustrating, annoying, petty and obnoxious in our lives. Often, for athletes, this is in their training. So much of what they elect to do is just, well, not fun. And it sometimes seems petty and trivial in the moment. But by keeping with the practice, the athlete learned to be patient, temperate and tolerant – and there is nothing petty or shallow about these qualities!
And so when we are confronted with these ugly qualities in others – when a literal bull-man of muscle decides to peel off his shirt in front of us and gloat at how much bigger he is – it becomes a test of our compassion. it trains our kindness. Sure, we mustn’t let arrogance be the order of social grace, nor let greed be allowed to spread, but in those individual moments when we are faced with those things we must practice finding within ourselves a calm acceptance.
Ignorance is not a good thing. But sometimes, in a contained moment, there is such a thing as momentarily harmless ignorance. We must train ourselves to shrug it off. or better yet: find the whimsy and charm. I mean, that dude was kind of having fun for those three minutes, and really did kind of make people remember to not get stuck in being "too normative."
Tolerating the ugly, harmless ignorance of bodybuilding clowns actually trains us to be patient with the flaws and deficits within ourselves. We develop patience for foolishness and approach blunders with an attitude light whimsy. It helps us adjust our internal anger and rage, and learn to love the world. And then we can be serene in the presence of any kind of clown. Which certainly helps us think clearer and spread more clear thought into society.
For us, therefore, our bodybuilding has become a space for compassion practice as much as for physical fitness. This is one of those hidden aspects of the practice of strength and physique development that will only occur if you bring out forward with intention. We engage the very shallow, petty, and greedy insecurity of the bodybuilding world in an effort too find joy where we can. That in turn trains us to be patient with that kind of energy. And if we can be patient with that kind of energy, imagine what we can confront with the rest of our lives?!
This is one of those hidden spiritual pearls in bodybuilding. Finding humor and fun with the idiotic, image-obsessed, steroid-driven, caetoonishly-masculine foolishness of muscle culture develops in us, gradually, a more temperate and flexible spirit.
And that helps our training.
But also improves our outlook on life.
Meaning it goes way beyond just bodybuilding and strength. It is really a practice that can be applied to any arena where there is quantitative gain involved. Anywhere folks preen their egos – from finance to science, from parenting to politics – one can begin a practice which expands patience, tolerance and temperance. Which is what the world really needs.
Sure, that dude own Boylston may have disagreed, and thought that what the world really needed was a glimpse at some of the most perfectly swollen pectorals ever witnessed by humanity.
The irony is that, because of what we can learn from the moment, he may just have been right.