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Our story approaches its climax: Our Hero prepares for the cataclysmic action on which all depends. She tenses her muscles, tightens her fists, screws up her face into a tense grimace.
Or does she? There are actually two ways to imagine how one achieves some brilliant feat. We have conflicting ideas about what makes action most effective.
Passion Conquers All
The most common view is that passion brings a sort of high-tension focus that intensifies action. (I’m using “passion” here to mean any violent emotion or supreme effort, not specifically romantic passion.) The more you feel, the more vigorously you act. This connection obviously correlates with our common experience. Fantasy and science fiction, as always, take the idea to new levels.
We picture this most obviously in fighting. Today’s most iconic image is probably that of the Hulk, from Marvel Comics, who changes from mild-mannered Bruce Banner to a massive powerhouse when Banner gets angry. The idea isn’t new to comics, of course; it goes back at least to the Norse berserker, who fights in what Wikipedia calls “a trance-like fury.” In a more mundane case, we see the milquetoast George McFly motivated by anger at a threat to the girl of his dreams when he finally decks Biff in “Back to the Future.”
But we also see passion as the path to other kinds of achievement. Great stress, suffering, or effort leads to a breakthrough in ability. Jean Grey of the X-Men becomes the cosmic-powered Phoenix when her power and endurance are tested to the limit piloting a space shuttle through a solar flare.
Gully Foyle achieves a previously-impossible interplanetary teleportation (“jaunte”) when he’s at the end of his rope in the SF classic The Stars, My Destination. Roger Zelazny’s hero Corwin recovers his memory and his full powers when he effortfully “walks the Pattern” in Nine Princes in Amber:
It was agony to move. Everything tried to beat me aside. The waters were cold, then boiling. It seemed that they constantly pushed against me. I struggled, putting one foot before the other.
In Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile, the tormented Felice Landry achieves new levels of power under extreme stress (The Golden Torc, part III, ch. 3). On a more positive note, the coda of E.E. Smith’s Lensman series shows Clarissa MacDougall, intensely suffering the loss of her beloved, finding the power necessary to retrieve him from unimaginable reaches (that chapter is a trope namer for TV Tropes’ “The Power of Love”). The movie version of Wonder Woman uses the same trope: a climactic accession of power under immense emotional strain.
Some of the modern roots of the passionate effort concept can be found in the Romantic movement.
Dispassion Also Has Its Points
But there’s a more paradoxical view that we can achieve more when we stop concentrating and enter a state of calmness or centeredness.
This approach also has many roots. We’re frequently advised, when struggling with a difficult task, that we’re “trying too hard.” Zen and other Asiatic traditions mobilize a strategy of detaching one’s mind from too great a concentration. The currently popular practice of “mindfulness” seems to partake of the same idea: a focus on the present moment without worry or intense concern. Wikipedia even refers to “choiceless awareness,” “the state of unpremeditated, complete awareness of the present without preference, effort, or compulsion.”
A nonpassionate sense of focus also appears in fantasy and SF as a way to great achievement, though it’s much more rare. In Robert Jordan’s massive fantasy epic The Wheel of Time, for example, Rand al’Thor is receiving sword training from a mentor who recommends “[n]ot the wild leaping about and slashing that Rand had in mind . . . but smooth motions, one flowing into another, almost a dance.”
“ . . . Blank your mind, sheepherder. Empty it of hate or fear, of everything. Burn them away. . . .”
Rand stared at him. “The flame and the void,” he said wonderingly. “That’s what you mean, isn’t it? My father taught me about that.” (The Eye of the World, ch. 13, paperback p. 177)
It’s through “the Void” that Rand can be most effective with the sword—and, later, with other things.
David Weber’s military SF heroine Honor Harrington, after surviving a shuttle explosion and emotional trauma, faced with a ritual duel to the death, dramatically decapitates her opponent with a single stroke. But she doesn’t do it in a burst of rage, well-justified as that would be.
Honor waited, poised and still, centered physically and mentally, her eyes watching every part of [her opponent’s] body without focusing on any. She felt his frustration, but it was as distant and unimportant as the ache of her broken ribs. She simply waited—and then, suddenly, she moved. (Flag in Exile, ch. 29, paperback p. 376)
We might also compare Frozen. Elsa gains full control over her powers not when she lashes out passionately, nor when she painfully restrains herself, but when her power flows freely and gladly.
It’s hard to specify exactly what this dis-passionate state is. It’s not pure rationality, à la Mr. Spock. We might consider it a sort of pure will; but it’s not a blind will creating its own goal à la Nietzsche. What you’re seeking still matters greatly; this Void state is how you approach it.
Nor is it lack of restraint, as we saw with Frozen. Rather, the mindful actor seems to have perfect direction, perfect control, by means of this very Void state. The arrow goes straight to the target—but it strikes with unparalleled force.
We don’t see as many examples of such centered intensity in the movies. Film tends to prefer the display of passion: it’s showier. A character whose action arises from an inner balance is likely to look entirely inert, from the outside—until she moves.
What these two approaches have in common, maybe, is wholeheartedness. This seems to be the point of Yoda’s famous advice: “Do, or do not; there is no try.” Mr. Miyagi says something very similar to Daniel in The Karate Kid (at about 0:54).
The best modern description of a condition in which complete involvement in an action combines calm with wholehearted dedication may be “flow state.” Most of us have probably experienced this ourselves. There’s a certain detachment; yet there’s also deep involvement. Emotion doesn’t get in the way, but the activity itself involves a sort of ecstasy (which, etymologically, means ‘standing outside oneself’). Note that the berserker was described above as possessing (or possessed by) a “trance-like fury.”
In other words, the two paths may converge in the end, where maximum emotion is wholly embodied in or transmuted into the act. None of that energy is wasted on subsidiary symptoms or mechanisms like straining, sweating, grimacing, screaming.
The way we approach these two paths affects how we tell a story. Depending on our hero, and the hero’s personality or way of life, we may depict the climax as the moment of greatest strain or passion, or as a great achievement in a moment of crucial calm—“the still point of the turning world.”
If we’re simply living life—dancing, singing, coding, negotiating, loving—this may be good advice as well. The way to do our best may not be to strain every sinew, but to relax and center. Or possibly both.