The Power in Learning How to Take a Punch
The only time I almost got into a fight was in 2nd/3rd grade with a friend of mine named Devon — we were running around playing tag, and I mocked Devon for stopping to catch his breath (he had asthma). Super shitty of me, I know. Even worse was that Devon was one of my best friends at the time and moved the year after; Devon, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry.
Anyway, after my taunt, he got up into me and we started pushing and shoving, and teachers had to separate us to prevent things from going any further. That was almost 15 years ago, and I still remember it so vividly; the cheers from our friends egging us on, the cries from teachers telling us to stop, and, more than anything, Devon’s face as I tried to apologize for my taunts. He was so shocked and hurt that a friend could make fun of something so personal and sensitive. It hurts me to know that I could be so cruel thinking back on it, especially since my brother has asthma now. Life is funny.
Self-reflection aside, I tell that story to highlight how rarely I’ve ever had to resort to physicality to resolve my issues; thanks to my general risk aversion as a kid and ability to talk myself out of almost anything, I avoided the fight with a friend or reckless injury that most young boys experience. The closest I ever got to breaking a bone was when I fell off my driveway’s 6-foot retaining wall when I was 12/13, which gave me nothing more than a few scars on my elbows and knees. I also had a pretty nasty MCL sprain when playing basketball my Freshman year of college, but that was more an inconveinance than anything painful.
That being said, I’ve always been curious about what it would be like to get seriously hurt. I’m a big believer that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and watching MMA fighters take such extreme bodily damage in a match only to come back later that year to do it all again birthed an itch in me that I could never really scratch. I’ve even imagined more than a few times how I would react if say, that random person to my left, suddenly took a swing at me. Secretly, I’ve always wanted to get in a fight to see how I would hold up. I’ve never, however, gotten in a fight on purpose just to see what it would feel like.
Well, over the Thanksgiving holiday, my time finally came, shockingly exactly how I had imagined it happening. I was on the subway with my friend on our way back from Brooklyn when a guy threw me a quick left hook to the face as I was getting ready to leave the train. I couldn’t tell you why it happened, but it happened. I won’t go into details too much for the sake of avoiding unnecessary goriness (and the ongoing police report), but it was crazy. Thankfully my friend was there with me and we got to an urgent care clinic right as they were closing to get my lip stitched, and my recovery hasn’t been much more than a fair amount of reverse commuting back to Long Island to see my dentist and some antibiotics and pain killers.
You know how they say “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade?” Well, I guess when life gives you a broken front tooth and busted lip, you make a blog post.
Now, given how I’d described my strange Fight Club-style fantasies about getting into fights with strangers, you’d expect me to be happy I got assaulted. I’m not. No one enjoys getting punched (although I do have an amazing first date story now). However, I am happy I was able to take a punch. As my friend can attest, I didn’t freak out, didn’t overreact, and most importantly didn’t swing back (dude was much bigger than me). I just calmly took a mental image of the guy who punched me, got off the train, and dealt with it.
To me, that’s the key — just dealing with it. I’m a deep thinker by nature and human behavior endlessly fascinates me. Those two traits fuel a strong desire to uncover the motives behind everything that happens in our world. I usually drive myself crazy trying to “figure out” other people, either to help them or know to avoid them. As successful as this strategy’s been for me, it doesn’t work on strangers with an interaction sample size of 1. Obviously I’m gonna want to avoid the guy who sucker punched me. So it served me no purpose to dwell on what motivated him to use his fists to communicate whatever anger or pain was in his heart instead of his words. This left me in an admittedly new predicament — being forced to deal with the consequences of something without being able to understand why it happened or prevent it from happening again. That, my friends, is life’s magic in action. Shit happens.
Surprisingly, I’ve found a lot of peace in the wake of my official welcome to New York City. After the pain subsided, I was left with a weird sense of satisfaction that comes from knowing you’re strong enough to take unexpected adversity in stride, both physically and emotionally. I didn’t have much, if any, PTSD from the incident and don’t lose sleep at night wondering what’ll happen to the man who punched me. For someone who’s had quite a pampered life without anything remotely life threatening happening to me, I’m proud of how little time I spent asking “Why me?” and how much time I spent relishing the chance I had to slow down and appreciate all that’s gone well in my life to make this was such a monumental thing.
It’s easy to victimize yourself when something you don’t like happens, because it’s even easier to trick yourself into thinking you are exempt from occasionally bearing the burden of humanity’s indiscriminate chaos.
That kind of thinking is a tempting trap — yes, it does give you a get out of jail free card from time to time, but it also dooms you to what I call death by externalization. Always believing you’re above what happens to you that you don’t like removes any incentive to critically reflect on the role you played in it. No reflection, no growth. No growth, no life. We’re like plants with emotions and egos.
In addition to our most powerful tool to become a better human, self-reflection is also our best teacher on what to take seriously. Without the pressures of responding to a circumstance in the present moment, we can evaluate it more objectively and thoroughly to determine if it was really worth our reaction.
Knowing what to take seriously also allows you to know what not to take too seriously (like a random sucker punch). That level of clarity is a damn superpower.
The perspective I’ve been able to maintain through all this stems from my ability to reframe adversity as a necessary ingredient in a fulfilling life. Even in my lowest moments after getting punched, I felt so grateful that I got to participate in the most raw and pure and real experience possible — shit happening.
So, as you (hopefully) gather with your loved ones this holiday season, remember that it didn’t have to happen. Regardless of what we go through, good and bad, the earth keeps spinning and life keeps throwing hooks and jabs our way. Not even surviving a pandemic entitles us to expect anything else. The fact that you have something to be thankful for today is a true blessing. Once you internalize that, you’ll find a lot of your fears are fairly insignificant and your worries transient — not even a random punch to the face can break that.
Me? I look forward to my next blog when I fall off my CitiBike or trip over a dog leash and crack another front tooth.
Happy Holidays, much love, and stay safe,