In the spring of 1944, on the occupied island of Crete, a German general was kidnapped. No shots were fired. No sign of a struggle. When I started reading the book, Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance, it seemed like an odd topic for Christopher McDougall. I loved his previous Born To Run so much that I purchased my first pair of running shoes and started training.
But a true story of a kidnapping during World War II? Turns out the kidnapping is only a small part of this carefully woven look at Greek mythology, the art of the hero, parkour, the power of fascia, the modern gym, poor nutrition, physical mastery and mental conditioning.
Now, to call the band of kidnappers “daring British commandos” is being…generous. There’s a one-eyed archaeologist (Indiana Jones has nothing on this guy), a playboy poet, and an artist. And the Crete resistance? Mostly shepherds or local towns folks who, as the Germans painfully found out, were great with gardening tools.
These colorful Brits were part of Winston Churchill’s secret army – yep, an army of archeologists, historians, poets, professors – people who wanted to help the war effort but wouldn’t fit into the regular military. They knew their way around foreign countries. Churchill’s idea was simple. Drop them behind enemy lines where they could blend in with the locals, join up with the resistance, then gum up the works to keep the German’s busy.
Retracing the kidnappers steps, McDougall blows up the mythology surrounding the hero. While mythology paints the hero in terms of virtues and moral lessons, McDougall argues that heroism is more about skills – natural movement, smart nutrition (hello high fat!) and incredible stamina.
As modern man evolved, we viewed the stories from long ago as myths, wise-tales or metaphors. But McDougall points out that although modern man hasn’t lived up to the deeds of mythological heroes, that doesn’t mean those heroes or deeds (in some form) didn’t exist. Perhaps, as technology simplified life, it became easy for us to place arbitrary limits on what we can do physically and mentally.
“For much of human history, the art of the hero wasn’t left up to chance; it was a multidisciplinary endeavor devoted to optimal nutrition, physical self-mastery, and mental conditioning.” — Christopher McDougall, Natural Born Heroes:
Fittingly Crete, where the kidnapping takes place, is known as the “Island of Heroes.”
From McDougall’s perspective, the hero is a lost art. We’ve replaced natural movement with spending an hour in the gym. We abandoned smart nutrition in 1977 with the food guidelines, paying a heavy price with our expanding waistline and metabolic diseases.
As for mental conditioning, I started thinking about how much time we spend/waste (pick one) on smart devices playing games (someone else designed), watching TV shows (someone else created) or texting (regressing of our communication skills). Thanks to “smart” technology we’ve become even more passive participants in our own lives. And critical thinking is going the way of the Dodo bird.
“An outlaw outlook calls on every citizen to create, not conform; to decide what is right and wrong and act on it, not just baa along with the rest of the herd.” — Christopher McDougall, Natural Born Heroes:
Is “smart” technology our version of Rome’s Bread and Circuses before the fall?
The book is a bit of a juggling act but McDougall is a wonderful storyteller and handles it smartly. While telling the tale of the kidnapping, we go along with McDougall as he attempts to retrace these commandos’ steps through difficult mountain terrain, and eat the foods they ate along the way. The author also interweaves tales of modern heroes from around the world – from the streets of London, to a Brazilian beach, to a school in Pennsylvania. Where we learn about men and women who were capable of feats they never knew were possible.
As Born to Run encouraged me to start running, after reading Natural Born Heroes I walked away from my gym and trainer. It was time to shake up my routine with parkour and relearn how to jump, roll, throw, climb, vault like our ancestors.
And it’s well past time for me to stop with our modern day Bread and Circuses and take on the “outlaw outlook.”