Stand Up Straight (and Why it Matters)
Lessons on Being Human
As both a strength coach and philosopher (of sorts), I’ve thought much on the idea of standing up straight. As a teenager, I often slouched, and people would tell me to “stand up straight” quite frequently. Obviously, I understood the physical benefits, but there was an even more fundamental idea underlying this. Jordan Peterson has popularized this already well-known phrase while explaining in great depth why standing up straight is not as prominent of an endeavor as many would think. Of course, Peterson draws on work from Mircea Eliade, his own vast experience in clinical psychology, and many other sources, and I’d like to compliment this idea with both a strength training and philosophical perspective.
The Physical Benefits
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the physical benefits of good posture to set the scene. Essentially, good posture — standing up straight while keeping your shoulders back and down — actually reduces physical pain over time. The human body is resilient and can withstand some slouching, but if you do this too much, you will feel physical discomfort from it. Have you ever had a day where you’ve spent a significant amount of time staring down at your cellphone? How did your neck feel?
The middle part of your back is known as the thoracic spine (T-spine) and has a natural stiffness. The spine isn’t vertical — it’s S-shaped, so to maintain a relatively straight back, you need to resist this natural stiffness. Fortunately, maintaining a good posture over time gets easier as this natural stiffness reduces and you strengthen the muscles required to retain this posture. Still, resistance is always there to some degree.
Why Must Humans Stand Up Straight?
Here’s something not-so-obvious: why doesn’t standing up straight come naturally to us? If you think about it, a dog doesn’t think about posture, nor a cat, nor other primates, for that matter. Other vertebrae animals seem to “be,” whereas humans have to fight for proper posture. Why?
Evolutionarily speaking, standing up straight literally and symbolically represents our transcendence from other primates. That is, standing up straight literally and symbolically makes us human. In A History of Religious Ideas, Mircea Eliade talks about how this vertical posture also implies a state of wakefulness, which we may also connect to consciousness. He extends this to the orientation system that we use, the Cartesian coordinate system. Because humans stand vertically, we orient things forward, backward, left, right, up, and down. The notion influences how we organize cities, for example, and how we psychologically think about philosophical and religious ideas (Heaven is infinitely up, for example). Eliade’s words are worth repeating:
The vertical posture already marks a transcending of the condition typical of the primates. Uprightness cannot be maintained except in a state of wakefulness. It is because of man's vertical posture that space is organized in a structure in accessible to the prehominians: in four horizontal directions radiating from an “up”-“down” central axis. In other words, space can be organized around the human body as extending forward, backward, to right, to left, upward, and downward. It is from this original and originating experience — feeling oneself thrown into the middle of an apparently limitless, unknown, and threatening extension — that the different methods of orientation are developed; for it is impossible to survive for any length of time in the vertigo brought on by disorientation. This experience of space oriented around a "center" explains the importance of the paradigmatic divisions and distributions of territories, agglomeration, and habitations and their cosmological symbolism.
- Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, Vol. 1
There’s a lot to unpack there, and I can’t recommend Mircea’s book series on religious ideas enough, but the point is that standing up straight makes us humans in ways that are unbelievably deep and archaic.
The Deeper Philosophical Lesson
Standing up straight makes us human, but humans must take this on voluntarily, as mentioned earlier. It’s not like having two hands, for example. We don’t need to consciously think about having two hands — we have two hands. On the other hand, standing up straight is something that we have to take on voluntarily. That means we must be willing to stand up straight, and it doesn’t strictly come for free.
Perhaps you could say that standing up straight allows you to transcend your primal ways. Have you ever seen someone with poor posture with slouched shoulders and a hump in the mid-back? Do they strike you as resembling a human being or rather another species of primate?
The Stoics urge us to be good, and even to have the potential to be good or bad is human in and of itself. An essential Stoic practice is Amor Fati — love of one’s fate — in which we adopt an unwavering love of whatever life throws at us; the good, the bad, and the ugly. Do you slouch when life throws you a challenge, or do you stand up straight and take it on voluntarily and, heck, even with love? Indeed, that must be the transcendence of life’s suffering.
It’s worth adding some Christianity because the Christians have put this idea beautifully, in my opinion: bear your cross. The idol Jesus Christ is well-known to have been crucified on the cross — the very cross that he carried up the hill where his crucifixion would take place. Literally and symbolically, this was his cross to bear, and Christianity urges you to pick up your cross, whatever that may be in life. Broadly, that means adopting responsible and the associated suffering that is inevitable too that responsibility.
You don’t have the choice on whether or not you get to bear a cross. The only option you have is what you bear it for and how you bear it. In Greek Mythology, the story of Sisyphus, who the gods condemned to roll a stone up the hill only to roll down to the bottom at the end of every day. He didn’t choose this fate, nor could he “not do it.” Sisyphus’ only freedom was to roll that stone up the hill with a smile on his face, not only doing it with a willing spirit but also with a loving one. Transcendence, anyone?
Standing up straight is physically and spiritually demanding. It’s not easy to love one’s fate, to bear one’s cross, to roll one’s stone up the hill every day with a smile. But you can’t avoid having to do this. All you can do is change how you do it and which perspective you choose to adopt. If you accept it, you can transcend the suffering, while the alternative is bitterness and resentment, and no cross can be heavier than that.
Thanks for reading. If you’re interested in learning more, listen to similar reflections on The Strong Stoic Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts.