A Word for Inner and Outer Strength

Nervenstärke (nair-fen-shtark-uh) • noun

Definition: Nerve Strength

Origin: German

We decided on this week’s word prior to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I spent a lot of time thinking about if I needed to choose a different word and contemplated if our original word remained appropriate. However, as the days went by, I realized that even if the initial topic derived from the intersection of soccer and philosophy, the impact of the word far exceeds the sport and remains enlightening for America’s present, and past, chaos.

Nerve Strength

About four years ago, I read an article on ESPN about what makes German soccer player Manuel Neuer -- who is the best goalkeeper in the world and won the World Cup with Germany in 2014 -- so good at soccer. The thesis of the article argued that his greatness derived from a beautiful German compound-word: nervenstärke. Nervenstärke means “nerve strength” and this one word articulates Neuer’s and the German National Team’s philosophical approach to playing soccer.

The philosophy of nervenstärke consists of promoting stillness, calm, confidence, focus, and strength during every facet of your life. For Neuer, this meant having nervenstärke at practice, the gym, the bus, and especially the match. The German National Team even has a team psychologist to instill nervenstärke into all of its players. As the goalkeeper, nervenstärke is especially important for Neuer because he is the last line of defense. If he exudes calm, confidence, and focus, it comforts the defenders in front of him and the defense gets better. If the defense gets better, it makes the midfielders have more nervenstärke too and the same for the forwards. Neuer’s “nerve strength” not only makes him perform at his best but also makes those around him better too.

When Neuer plays goalkeeper, he is known for rushing out of his penalty box (the area where he can use his hands) and stopping attacks as if he was a regular defender. This tactic is risky because one mistake will almost certainly result in a goal, and historically, goalkeepers would play it safe by staying in their penalty box and letting the defenders do the defending. However, Neuer changed this dynamic and consistently pulled off the previously unimaginable due to his practice of nervenstärke. As he engages in an activity that consumes most coaches, players, and fans with anxiety and dread, he exudes calm, focus, confidence, and strength. His nervenstärke affects the rest of the team and allows everyone to play better because they have a language and philosophy to guide them as they achieve the previously impossible feat.

Nervenstärke and Black Lives Matter

Far too often, I interact with people where anxiety, worry, fear, and dread are perceived as the de facto ways of interacting with the world. The unspoken philosophy is that the world is out of control and chaotic, therefore, it makes sense to both manifest those worries and chaos within ourselves and to exude them to others. If you do not exude chaos, you might look like you do not fully understand how chaotic the world is. As a result, the social norm has unintentionally become one of "nerve weakness" because people are reacting to the world without an understanding of what nerve strength could look like and without the philosophy and practice for cultivating it.

As I thought about the Jacob Blake shooting this week, I kept on thinking about nervenstärke and America’s normalized culture of fear. Law enforcement and white vigilantes often justify the unjust killing of Black people because of an amorphous fear of Black existence. 

The language at SCL would articulate America’s perpetual fear via the problem of prioritizing essence ahead of existence, and the creation of a white essence in America. Objectively speaking, the act of sustaining a white or European essence while not existing in Europe is nearly impossible due to the fact that most people in the world have darker complexions or non-European facial features. To sustain a white essence, white people are constantly battling the existence of non-white people, which is a battle against existence itself. This perpetual war brings about more anxiety and fear, which is what a white-dominated America encourages people of color to accept because this is the foundation of their white essence focused existence.

However, as the recipients of America’s lethal anxiety, Black America and other communities of color must counter this tragic social norm with “nerve strength.” We must cultivate philosophies and practices to keep us calm, focused, courageous, and strong as we confront the inevitable attacks of our ethnocidal society. We must exude nervenstärke and spread it throughout our community to ensure that we all have the requisite strength to continue to fight for equality and Black existence in America. American English does not have a comparable word to nervenstärke, but when we think about the civil rights icons of the 1960s and the Black Lives Matter activists today, it is clear that a strength of nerve is what allows them to be consistently courageous and guide these movements. Civil rights activists in the 1960s practiced holding their nerve and keeping their composure in anticipation of the abuse they would receive and didn't let that stop their fight to end Jim Crow. Nerve strength made them more courageous and focused, which propelled a previously thought impossible to become possible.

As we think about America’s lethal inequalities and contemplate how we should respond, we should all practice nervenstärke at the individual level and spread it to our peers in order to be able to collectively achieve the “impossible” and break society’s ethnocidal norms.

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