The mind is a powerful thing.
It’s an age old saying that resonates through generations, holds true from one amazing story to another, confirmed by testimonies of the successful.
I had a dream recently where I was thrown suddenly into a pool of water. Naturally I held my breath, and it took me a while to surface, so long that I became fearful of drowning. When I woke up, I was still holding my breath.
It had me wondering, if I had blanked out, would I have almost suffocated, or almost drowned?
True there was no water around – my physical body was safely in bed – but to my mind, being immerged in water was real as the room I slept in.
So powerful is the mind that the body will follow once the conditions are right, no matter how much fatigue or nutrients or air exists.
Morpheus from the Matrix described it best – “What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”
This can also be extended to how much you can endure.
We see it in stories all the time. Characters are placed into all manner of unfortunate situations that seem impossible to survive, and against all odds of freezing and fatigue and starvation, they come out in the end.
And we love them for it!
At least I do, and here are several great examples why.
In one of my favourite anime Samurai X (or Battousai the Slasher/Manslayer depending on the language), Kenshin goes up against Shishio in a penultimate fight. Shishio has Kenshin practically lying in his own pool of blood, chest busted up, hands convulsing in defeat. Thinking about recent key moments in his life, training with his sensei, the voice of the woman he loves, Kenshin spring to his feet with the words, “My will to live is stronger than anything else!” His wound didn’t heal, his body didn’t revive. His mind is what pushed him on.
In season 3 of HBO’s George R R Martin novel adaptation Game of Thrones, there’s an episode where a group of the Night’s Watch are traipsing through the frozen north, and Samwell Tarly falls to his knees, too tired to walk, convinced this was the end for him. His captain turns to him and says, “I forbid you to die!” That’s enough to get Samwell walking again, proving it wasn’t his body that gave up. It was his mind.
In Joe Abercrumbie’s The First Law trilogy, the northman Logan Ninefingers has an alternate personality that kicks in whenever the fighting gets rough. He doesn’t get stronger, or taller, or physically superior. Rather, his psychology changes to the Bloody-Nine, and he’s suddenly able to get up and conquer all foes before him.
In the Warhammer series Dragonslayer by William King, Gotrek and Felix and their gang of adventurers confront the dragon Skjalandir in its lair. The fight takes a turn for the worst when Felix’s mystical sword Karaghul awakens, and without altering his body, drives him to slay the beast.
In Brian Staveley’s Chronicles of the Unhewn Thrown trilogy, there are mystical gates scattered about the land that teleports those who enter from one location to another. But using them is not a matter of physical strength or genetic makeup. Rather, the mind has to be conditioned to a complete void of emotion, a state that Kaden masters called the Vaniate.
In Jevon Knight’s epic novel Guardian of the Cursed Crown, Larsen embarks on an arduous journey to the Horn of Desanorbis in an effort to cure his wife Gwen from the illness Seveth Sleep. Everytime he encounters a strugle that seems too much to handle, it’s not his physical strength or any form of training that drives him onward. It is the unyielding love for his wife. (ha okay I’m getting ahead of myself with this one).
So yes, the mind is a powerful thing, awesome in fiction and true in reality. Don’t get me wrong, there are external factors at play. We can’t really fly or dodge bullets like in the Matrix – no one is invincible. But usually when our minds believe the body is at its limit, there are four more boilers ready to light. Remember that the next time things get rough.
My characters certainly will.