I’m not a sporty person. Never have been. I don’t enjoy watching team sports in general, and I would rather chew glass than play one. I was a competitive swimmer during my younger years, and I enjoyed that – you race a clock for the most part, and it’s about individual, rather than team, achievement. Which is not to say I don’t like working in teams. I absolutely adored the years I spent doing theatre at university – Every year, for four years, I took part in three plays, and they were incredible, joyful experiences.
I lack what appears to be a near universal human drive to chase objects in motion. Circular objects traveling at high speeds just don’t interest me. Oh look! A ball is flying through the air.
Who cares? Not me.
I don’t think sports are stupid, or athletes are meatheads. I recognize the extraordinary strategic thinking, in real time, that occurs on the sports field, especially at very high levels. I would guess that any professional athlete is well above average intelligence. Sports are demanding, challenging activities that require brainpower and great skill.
I usually say I find sports boring. But that isn’t quite true. I don’t like sports because I’m not good at them. I’m not good at them because I won’t put in the time to really learn a sport. Again, I generally like to sneer that I find reading books or talking to people or doing anything else more interesting, but that’s not true either.
It’s because any kind of athletic achievement requires you to master pain.
I never excelled at swimming because the moment the pain became the only thing I could feel, I quit. Fuck this, I’m done.
So I lost.
The winners were the ones who could become a single sensation: pain. And keep going.
Then last year I discovered something that in retrospect I am surprised never occurred to me to try before: boxing. I love boxing. It is the first sport I have ever found where conquering pain seems worthwhile. Not just worthwhile, but unbelievably fun! I would not be surprised to know a lot of my regular readers are shaking their heads, thinking “how did you not realize that you would enjoy beating the shit out of bags and gloves and pads and people?” I love doing that metaphorically, so why not physically?
The answer is simple: pain. I never picked up boxing gloves before, because I assumed boxing would hurt, and I try not to volunteer for pain. I never considered that pain could be fun, or exhilarating or fulfilling. Outside the boxing ring, I have not found pain to be any of those things. It’s been terrifying, humiliating and demoralizing. Not something I would willingly do for shits and giggles.
The only pain I have enthusiastically embraced was childbirth, but it was not fun.
Culturally, we don’t lionize women’s pain. Quite the opposite: women’s pain is seen as far more important, and far more worthy of ameliorating actions than men’s pain. A woman in physical pain can elicit a protective, reactive response from strangers almost anywhere. A man in physical pain is equally likely to be met with mocking and scorn as sympathy and care. Researchers call this ‘the empathy gap’, but it’s not as simple as women matter and men don’t. To be certain, there is a significant element of just not giving a shit about men who are hurting, which is how we get epidemic suicide rates and discriminatory laws and social practices that regard men as less emotionally worthy than women. Courts will tear a man’s children away from him without a moment’s thought, because his pain means nothing to the court. Men are sent to die in horrifying, terrifying wars, because men are expected to just deal with their fear and face death.
Feminists diagnose these things as ‘toxic masculinity’, essentially blaming men for their own suffering. If men weren’t so hell-bent on being men, they would understand, like women do, that pain is to be avoided and never to be enjoyed.
I have been training, for the past two months, in a martial art called Krav Maga. It’s not really accurate to call it a martial art. It’s a down and dirty, no holds barred, no rules street fighting style with a single goal: live. It’s combat. Biting, scratching, eye-gouging, ripping off ears, breaking limbs, dislocating joints and crotch shots are all game.
And I fucking love it!
I train five days a week, and the workouts are intense. I leave every class looking like a domestic violence victim. I am covered in bruises, bleeding from at least one location and some part of my body is raging red – my throat (from getting choked repeatedly), my arms (from taking bone strikes), my face (from getting smacked with pads). Protip: KEEP YOUR HANDS UP! Most of these injuries are from making mistakes. All of them are painful. I took a round kick to the lower abdomen, because I wasn’t paying attention. I got kneed in the thigh TWICE by an adult man, because I didn’t get the pads in place quick enough to take a knee strike. I’ve been kicked so hard, I’ve slammed into the wall.
It sucks and it’s the most exhilarating, fun, deeply gratifying thing I’ve ever done. I would never slide into home plate, replacing the skin on my elbow with chunks of gravel and go limping off field thinking “that was fucking awesome!”, but I will absolutely leave Krav class with knuckles turning black and swelling and bleeding and think “holy shit, that was fantastic!”
For the first 7 weeks of Krav, I was terrible. Because I fear the pain.
I fear getting hit. It’s fun yes, but it also hurts! I tense up. I think too much. I over analyze. I break the defenses down into steps and then can’t put them back together into one motion. I’m easy to beat. In a scrum, surrounded by four grown men and women who are hitting and pushing me very aggressively with pads, I forget to breathe. My strikes have no power. And I am completely exhausted after a single round. After 5 rounds, I’m useless. This isn’t my class, but the drills look a lot like this:
Finally, last week, my instructor watched me struggling, then gave me some advice: “When you’re in the scrum, getting shoved and hit, keep your hands up, block the hits, and breathe. Breathe deeply. You’re going to get hit. It’s going to hurt. Just accept it.”
It’s hard to do. Like most women, I have no training of any kind to prepare for being hit. And obviously, I am excluding childhood tussles with siblings. That is not preparation. It’s childhood. We live in a culture that is practically hysterical in its insistence that women live in constant, unrelenting fear of violence, and yet, when it comes to actual violence, I have no context for it, as an adult.
Because I’m a woman. And in particular, I’m a woman who doesn’t hit men.
In actual fact, men are the ones who live with the reality of violence. Whether a man is hanging out with his friends at a bar, or walking home after a softball game, or riding the subway or basically doing anything in public, he must be prepared for violence. A man has to not only accept that he may be the victim of violence, but also called upon to carry out violence. Violence from other men, he can meet with violence of his own. Violence from a woman, he is not supposed (or even legally permitted) to respond to. If another man or woman gets attacked by other men or women, he is expected to step in, even at risk to himself. Failing to offer violent resistance is called the bystander effect. Men are supposed to intervene to protect others.
I don’t understand how you can be a man in today’s society and not understand the lesson I learned just last week: You’re gonna get hit. It’s gonna hurt. Just accept it.
For me, it’s fun. Because I get to choose it, and I can choose to end it at any time.
Violence for most women is a game, if it exists at all. I think this is at the heart of why women can be so cavalier about violence against men, and so nonchalant about demanding men’s violence for their own protection. Masculinity is toxic? Oh, I don’t think so.
From where I stand, femininity is the toxin.
Learning to accept getting hit, accept pain, remain calm and breathe has been my first breakthrough in Krav. I no longer think. I react. I can do that now, because I have come to accept that it will hurt. I will survive. My instructor upped the ante and threw in knife attacks, and I still stayed calm and blocked every one. I got cut a few times, but not stabbed, and I didn’t panic. (Simulated of course). I accepted that I was going to get cut.
I didn’t realize when I started my Krav journey that I would awaken a part of me I didn’t know was there.
For a variety of reasons, I have always been good at empathizing with men. It is not a struggle for me to see them as human beings, fully capable of every human strength, fear and emotion. But I am becoming alive to just how little I really do experience true empathy. By awakening, in an extremely controlled and safe environment, the small warrior inside me, I am coming to know what it’s really like to be a man. At one point in my life, I would have said something along the lines of ‘no man can understand the experience of childbirth’.
I would never say that today.
Men understand perfectly. And I believe that in holding their tiny, helpless, vulnerable, oh so precious newborns, men understand what it is to be a woman. Men experience the exact same tender ferocity that women do. It’s a terrible irony that we often characterize men as not being fully human, and demand they get in touch with their feminine sides, all the while assuming women are entirely human, capable of understanding the world from both perspectives.
It’s not true.
Women are the ones who do not understand. Most of us will never understand. We can pretend we know what violence, what the threat of violence, the obligations of violence, the responsibilities of violence, are, but we don’t.
And all men do.
They have no choice.
I am looking forward to continuing my Krav journey, guided by a truly gifted instructor and teacher, not only for the skills I am learning, but for this awakening. Krav is opening my mind to a part of me that helps me see and understand the world in entirely new ways.
I am becoming fully human.
It’s frightening, sobering, and one of the best things I have ever done.
Thank you, Ian.
Lots of love,