The Lesson of The Iron

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By Henry Rollins

I believe that the definition of definition is reinvention. To not be
like your parents. To not be like your friends. To be yourself.


When I was young I had no sense of myself. All I was, was a product of
all the fear and humiliation I suffered. Fear of my parents. The
humiliation of teachers calling me "garbage can" and telling me I'd be
mowing lawns for a living. And the very real terror of my fellow
students. I was threatened and beaten up for the color of my skin and
my size. I was skinny and clumsy, and when others would tease me I
didn't run home crying, wondering why. I knew all too well. I was there
to be antagonized. In sports I was laughed at. A spaz. I was pretty
good at boxing but only because the rage that filled my every waking
moment made me wild and unpredictable. I fought with some strange fury.
The other boys thought I was crazy.

I hated myself all the time. As stupid at it seems now, I wanted to
talk like them, dress like them, carry myself with the ease of knowing
that I wasn't going to get pounded in the hallway between classes.
Years passed and I learned to keep it all inside. I only talked to a
few boys in my grade. Other losers. Some of them are to this day the
greatest people I have ever known. Hang out with a guy who has had his
head flushed down a toilet a few times, treat him with respect, and
you'll find a faithful friend forever. But even with friends, school
sucked. Teachers gave me hard time. I didn't think much of them either.

Then came Mr. Pepperman, my advisor. He was a powerfully built Vietnam
veteran, and he was scary. No one ever talked out of turn in his
class.Once one kid did and Mr. P. lifted him off the ground and pinned
him to the blackboard. Mr. P. could see that I was in bad shape, and
one Friday in October he asked me if I had ever worked out with
weights. I told him no. He told me that I was going to take some of the
money that I had saved and buy a hundred-pound set of weights at Sears.
As I left his office, I started to think of things I would say to him
on Monday when he asked about the weights that I was not going to buy.
Still, it made me feel special. My father never really got that close
to caring. On Saturday I bought the weights, but I couldn't even drag
them to my mom's car. An attendant laughed at me as he put them on a

Monday came and I was called into Mr. P.'s office after school. He said
that he was going to show me how to work out. He was going to put me on
a program and start hitting me in the solar plexus in the hallway when
I wasn't looking. When I could take the punch we would know that we
were getting somewhere. At no time was I to look at myself in the
mirror or tell anyone at school what I was doing. In the gym he showed
me ten basic exercises. I paid more attention than I ever did in any of
my classes. I didn't want to blow it. I went home that night and
started right in.

Weeks passed, and every once in a while Mr. P. would give me a shot and
drop me in the hallway, sending my books flying. The other students
didn't know what to think. More weeks passed, and I was steadily adding
new weights to the bar. I could sense the power inside my body growing.
I could feel it.

Right before Christmas break I was walking to class, and from out of
nowhere Mr. Pepperman appeared and gave me a shot in the chest. I
laughed and kept going. He said I could look at myself now. I got home
and ran to the bathroom and pulled off my shirt. I saw a body, not just
the shell that housed my stomach and my heart. My biceps bulged. My
chest had definition. I felt strong. It was the first time I can
remember having a sense of myself. I had done something and no one
could ever take it away. You couldn't say shit to me.

It took me years to fully appreciate the value of the lessons I have
learned from the Iron. I used to think that it was my adversary, that I
was trying to lift that which does not want to be lifted. I was wrong.
When the Iron doesn't want to come off the mat, it's the kindest thing
it can do for you. If it flew up and went through the ceiling, it
wouldn't teach you anything. That's the way the Iron talks to you. It
tells you that the material you work with is that which you will come
to resemble. That which you work against will always work against you.


It wasn't until my late twenties that I learned that by working out I
had given myself a great gift. I learned that nothing good comes
without work and a certain amount of pain. When I finish a set that
leaves me shaking, I know more about myself. When something gets bad, I
know it can't be as bad as that workout.

I used to fight the pain, but recently this became clear to me: pain is
not my enemy; it is my call to greatness. But when dealing with the
Iron, one must be careful to interpret the pain correctly. Most
injuries involving the Iron come from ego. I once spent a few weeks
lifting weight that my body wasn't ready for and spent a few months not
picking up anything heavier than a fork. Try to lift what you're not
prepared to and the Iron will teach you a little lesson in restraint
and self-control.

I have never met a truly strong person who didn't have self-respect. I
think a lot of inwardly and outwardly directed contempt passes itself
off as self-respect: the idea of raising yourself by stepping on
someone's shoulders instead of doing it yourself. When I see guys
working out for cosmetic reasons, I see vanity exposing them in the
worst way, as cartoon characters, billboards for imbalance and
insecurity. Strength reveals itself through character. It is the
difference between bouncers who get off strong-arming people and

Muscle mass does not always equal strength. Strength is kindness and
sensitivity. Strength is understanding that your power is both physical
and emotional. That it comes from the body and the mind. And the heart.

Yukio Mishima said that he could not entertain the idea of romance if
he was not strong. Romance is such a strong and overwhelming passion, a
weakened body cannot sustain it for long. I have some of my most
romantic thoughts when I am with the Iron. Once I was in love with a
woman. I thought about her the most when the pain from a workout was
racing through my body.

Everything in me wanted her. So much so that sex was only a fraction of
my total desire. It was the single most intense love I have ever felt,
but she lived far away and I didn't see her very often. Working out was
a healthy way of dealing with the loneliness. To this day, when I work
out I usually listen to ballads.

I prefer to work out alone. It enables me to concentrate on the lessons
that the Iron has for me. Learning about what you're made of is always
time well spent, and I have found no better teacher. The Iron had
taught me how to live. Life is capable of driving you out of your mind.
The way it all comes down these days, it's some kind of miracle if
you're not insane. People have become separated from their bodies. They
are no longer whole.

I see them move from their offices to their cars and on to their
suburban homes. They stress out constantly, they lose sleep, they eat
badly. And they behave badly. Their egos run wild; they become
motivated by that which will eventually give them a massive stroke.
They need the Iron Mind.

Through the years, I have combined meditation, action, and the Iron
into a single strength. I believe that when the body is strong, the
mind thinks strong thoughts. Time spent away from the Iron makes my
mind degenerate. I wallow in a thick depression. My body shuts down my

The Iron is the best antidepressant I have ever found. There is no
better way to fight weakness than with strength. Once the mind and body
have been awakened to their true potential, it's impossible to turn

The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all
kinds of talk, get told that you're a god or a total bastard. The Iron
will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference
point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in
the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It
never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two
hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.


  1. Yes!!
    He spoke up again, just when I needed him most.

  2. I had to read it again…and then again.
    This post means a lot to me. I have listened and related to Henry for decades now. This post just fortified all that I needed to remember about “why” I CrossFit. Here come the Games: another benchmark, another reason to push, another reason for reflection, another reason to be grateful for growth, another reason to celebrate each other, another reason to – Get Some. Go Again.
    Thank you all for providing me a place to expose weaknesses and work through them.

  3. I can’t get over this.
    I had to read it again.
    I hope I never lose the feeling I have right after reading this.

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