In 1949, an official boxing match was held between a bear and a man. The bear won, but we’ll get back to that later.
FACT: Rocky Balboa is the greatest boxer ever.
As a youngster, I’d watch Rocky and bounce around the house shadowboxing. Right jab. Left hook. Uppercut. Uppercut. My mom would cheer me on singing, “Getting strong now! Won’t be long now! Gonna fly now!” I was pound for pound the toughest shadow boxer in the kindergarten-weight-class. And because of this, I could go into nap time knowing that my Rice Krispy Treats would be safe. Thanks, Rocky!
My first real bout wouldn’t come for years though. It was the first day of third grade and as I was walking home, three kids strolled up to me and said, “Hey, new kid! Put up your dukes!” I should have roasted them, who uses a phrase like that before a fight? Did they learn bullying from 1950’s gangster films? What kind of 9 year old says that?! Just as I turned around, one of them punched me in my 3rd-grade face, the other two decided to help him by holding me up while he used me as punching bag. After they finished giving me a beat down they said, “Welcome to St. Mary’s.” Weirdest welcoming committee I’ve ever encountered to this day.
Lesson learned. If we didn’t put up our dukes and fight we’d get beat down - no exceptions. That’s why I learned to fight. And growing up in the inner city of Chicago, boy did it come in handy!
As we get older, the threat of physical violence diminishes. But what doesn’t go away is the fact that people will throw punches. Our classmates, people in our families, friends, politicians, police, and everyone and they mama is a potential opponent. They’ll jab at the ways we’re inadequate, they’ll take verbal swings at us behind our backs, push our buttons, bob-and-weave to not give us what we want, get in our way, point out our flaws, refuse to change, and create pain we must learn to combat. The boxing ring of life teaches us to always be on the defense. We have to be ready to fight. We have to stay on our guard. The moment we lower our gloves, we leave ourselves open to attack. And if we don’t learn to stick up for ourselves - no one will.
Many of us live this way. I don’t know everyone reading this but I know I’m not alone.
“Is that working for you? Is it getting you the results you want?” Those questions changed me forever. I went from a guy defending himself against the world to a guy who learned how to put his dukes down.
“It sounds like you get pretty defensive in conflict.” I was in the third session of therapy with a previous girlfriend and the therapist and I were going back and forth.
“Of course I do! If I don’t protect myself, who will? She definitely won’t,” I said motioning to my partner sitting beside me.
Then I got hit with a right hook: “I get it. You’re defensive. Is that working for you? Is it getting you the results you want?”
I didn’t see it coming and it stung because she was right. I was so preoccupied with making sure no one would hurt me that I wasn’t allowing real intimacy to happen and so busy protecting myself that I missed the real fight.
What I needed to shift was what I was fighting for. I needed to fight for us. I needed to fight FOR her instead of WITH her. And that wasn’t happening with me on defense. It happens when we learn a new way of fighting. It happens when we take our gloves off. It happens when we let our guard down.
I’m not saying you should let people beat you up. That’s foolish. I am saying we need to stop believing everyone wants to beat us up. Do those types of people exist? Sure. But not everyone is a third grade bully who wants to sucker punch us when we’re not looking. We must stop anticipating the moment of betrayal, disappointment, and abandonment. It doesn’t bring us closer to the people we love. It doesn’t bring us closer to anyone. It doesn’t give us the results we want. Plain and simple - it doesn’t work.
Maybe as you’ve been reading you’ve been feeling yourself getting defensive. Thinking to yourself, “who does this guy think he is? He doesn’t know me. He has no idea what I’ve been through.” Perhaps you think that the only way to fight fire is with fire and that bullies need to be met with strength. If this way of life has worked for you, then by all means my brothers and sisters, please keep living that way. But I suspect that it hasn’t worked out as well as you’d wanted. Maybe you dread family gatherings because you know they’re going to end up in arguments. Or maybe you have that one friend that you dodge when they want to make plans, because you know that you’re just going to leave feeling upset or offended. Maybe you feel the distance growing between you and your spouse because you just don’t want to hear it anymore. You can’t control the ways other people show up in your life. You can’t make the person across from you stop taking swings. But you can decide to bring your guard down.
Let me be clear, this is not a tactic. This is not another way to get what you ultimately want. We still live in community and we have relationships with people who are fighting their own battles. My girlfriend and I didn’t work out. Even though I stopped being defensive, she refused to tell the truth. The family and friends we try so desperately to change will outright refuse to acknowledge their disfunction. Even though we may stop hitting them, they may still hit us.
This stance isn’t about throwing in the towel. When we put our dukes down and surrender the fights we can’t win what changes is us. We acknowledge that the only way we can beat the bear is by not getting in the ring with it. (Someone should have told Leonardo DiCaprio that cuz he got dealt with in The Revenant!) We begin to see if people are truly hitting us or are we hitting first because we don’t wanna get hit? We start to see the fights rooted in our own ego and desire for self-preservation. We gain the wisdom to know the battles worth fighting for. We learn that it’s better to admit your faults than defend them. We get closer to the people who matter. We allow others to see us clearly. Our hearts grow softer and we become vulnerable. We start to hear the sound of a new way of life: “Getting strong now! Won’t be long now! Gonna fly now!”