The Fear of Getting Punched in the Face


“I just hit that guy as hard as he’ll ever be hit,” a professional boxer said of his opponent. “I don’t see that as mean or cruel. I see it as a liberating him from the fear of being punched in the face, because no one else will ever punch him that hard as long as he lives. He’s free now, as I see it, and I hope he uses it.”

That guy had to be joking. The idea is so over-the-top, it’s almost funny. It sounds like something Muhammed Ali might say to try to further humiliate Joe Frazier. It sounds like a verbal version of Ali looming over Sonny Liston. When we’re done laughing, we chew on the unusual, unorthodox philosophy, and we think it might have some sort of twisted logic to it.

How much did the fear of getting punched in the face shape our high school years? What did we do to avoid a situation where that scary escalation might arise, and how liberating would it have been if we had no such fears?

The immediate reaction to this idea is that it doesn’t help, and it could even forestall, a person’s ability to learn proper conflict/resolution principles. That is probably true, but it sure would be liberating.

The contrarian response might be, “How about we do away with kids punching kids in the face?” I don’t think anyone is against that or anything else that could prevent children from being harmed, intimidated, or in any way bullied, but the reality is that the playground is equivalent to the jungle in some ways. There are docile creatures who only eat vegetation, and there are predators. The vegetarians hide, they develop techniques to camouflage their weakness, and they develop their own maneuvers to thwart predators 

Adult vegetarians develop rules, seminars to reinforce those rules, and they have one-on-ones with children who continue to violate rules will help curb the problem. I would submit they don’t understand the rules of the jungle. The number one rule of the jungle is he who isn’t afraid to throw a punch wins every argument. The second, and perhaps more important, rule of the jungle is he who is not afraid to get punched has power equal to, and perhaps greater than, he who isn’t afraid to punch. To my old-fashioned, dated mind that deals with generalities as they apply to human nature, the prize fighter’s twisted logic makes sense when we apply new found confidence into the conflict/resolution paradigm.

We can all try to change the rules of the jungle, and we should, but when adults micromanage a kid’s world, the first and last question they should ask is, “And then what?” In my day (insert old fogey voice), the first and last thing we did was violate every rule we could find. As we define and redefine and double and triple-down on our rules, does it change the nature of the rebel, or does it make the rebel more powerful. Do we accidentally make those who still aren’t afraid to punch and be punched more powerful?  

Aside from the pain involved, there is something shocking about getting punched in the face. If the same person delivered a powerful blow to the stomach, it might hurt just as bad, but it doesn’t feel as shocking or personal. 

If we didn’t receive such a blow by the time we graduated high school, it’s likely we never will. When we were younger, however, the perceived threat of being punched often led to a fear of the unknown. Most of us didn’t have an older brother, a neighborhood kid, friends, or enemies to diminish this fear of fighting, or getting punched, so no one ever liberated us from this fear in the manner the prize fighter proposed.

We never heard this theory when we were young, vegetarians in the jungle, but it influenced our every day … until they broach the threshold. No matter how small, passive, and invisible some vegetarians might be, everyone has a threshold. By the time Sean “the bully” whipped a wadded up piece of paper at my face, to impress Dave, the all-star defensive tackle at our school, I’d simply had enough. 

Dave never had anything to prove to anyone in high school. Sean, however, was a medium-sized guy who was always on the lookout to prove himself. Those of us near him, on the hierarchical totem pole of teenagers, often received his proverbial boot to our face, so Sean could define himself worthy of the respect and friendship of someone like Dave. The proverbial boot to the face, in my case, was a wadded up ball of paper that landed so flush Dave found it hilarious.

If I gave my reaction some thought, I might calculate it as brave, but it was impulsive, blind rage that drove me to pick up that ball of paper and throw it back in Sean’s face. I then, again without thought, loomed over his desk.

“Knock it off!” the scariest teacher in our school yelled. “Return to your seat!” he said yelling my name. It took me about fifteen seconds to cool down, and I did after the scary teacher screamed at me again at the top of his lungs. I sat back down, and I tried to cool off. “You two, see me after class,” the teacher yelled, calling out our names, in his baritone voice.

“You think you’re a tough guy don’t you?” the football superstar, Dave, whispered to me when class was over.

“I don’t,” I said. “I really don’t, but I’m not going to put up with that.”

What Sean and Dave didn’t understand was that I put up with such incidents for years from Sean and others, and I never did anything about it, because I feared I might not fare well in the final confrontation.

Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a strategy, until they get punched in the mouth.” It’s true, but how many failed strategies do we employ to avoid getting punched in the mouth? How many bullies proceed unimpeded with the implicit threat of a punch to the mouth? “We both know you’re not going to do anything about it, because you don’t want to get punched in the mouth.”  

Getting punched in the mouth hurts, and losing fights is so embarrassing that we do whatever we can to avoid it. In the cushy world our parents provided us, by sending us to quality schools, we never had to fight before, and we feared that the guy, challenging our manhood, might expose that.

In the high school arena, I call the jungle, we witness the non-confrontational tactics our fellow nerds employ to try to end their torment. We see them laugh with their bullies to try to convince them that they’re in on the joke. It’s as if the nerd is saying, “That shot at my character not only failed to hurt my feelings, I thought it was actually pretty funny.” It never worked. We’ve also witnessed some nerds laugh when their bully picks on another nerd in a desperate quest to form some level of solidarity with their tormentors. This calls to mind another Tyson quote, “A man that’s a friend of everyone is an enemy to himself.” We empathize with the nerds’ efforts of course, as they desperately try anything to end their torment, but those of us who survived high school know that nothing works better than finding a way to prove that we don’t fear the final confrontation. We nerds learned, from other nerds, to avoid overdoing out defense too, for that exposes the effort for what it is. We nerds need to muster up the courage to look the bully in the eye (and that’s essential) and confidently say something that suggests we don’t fear being punched in the mouth. I wish I could give my fellow nerds a great line to end to it all, but the best lines are situational.

By the time Sean tested my boundaries, I’d had enough. I didn’t care, at that point. Even if it was the 6’5”, 250 lb., defensive tackle who threw that ball of paper at me, I would’ve risked the hospital stay, and a month spent in traction just to send a message that I was done with it all. I was done with fearing a punch in the face. I was done, with figuratively taking it on the chin, because I feared that the other guy might have older brothers who taught him how to punch and how to fight. This whole idea that I feared the unknown world of fighting just didn’t have the mystique it once did for me, when the alternative involved me allowing them to do whatever they wanted to do to me.

I’m smaller than average male now, but I was very little back then, and I wasn’t one of those scrappy little guys who knew how to fight. In the few scrapes that came my way, I proved that I didn’t know what I was doing. There is, however, that flirtation we all have that if driven to the extreme, we might surprise them all with a sweeping haymaker that shocks the world. The truth, if we ever found out, is that our most devastating punch will probably come off as uninformed and untrained as we fear, BUT, more often than not, so will the other guy’s.

How many of us wish we could go back in this world and redress the wrongs done to us? I changed the course of one incident, and as you can probably tell I’m quite proud of it, but it was the result of silently putting up with so many others. I also thought that if I did this to one person, word might spread, and I might not have to put up with others bullying me. Life doesn’t work that way, especially in the jungle. I also thought that if I displayed the temerity necessary to prove myself one day, I might be better prepared to do it again later. Again, life doesn’t work that way. Each confrontation is its own separate entity, and each high school student has to deal with it accordingly.

How many of us so feared the thought of being punched in the face that we allowed far too many confrontational teases go unchallenged? How many of us would love to go back to that world and say, “I honestly don’t give a crap if you punch me anymore. Punch me! Do it! Let’s just get this whole thing over with. I should warn you, however, that I’m going to help you christen this moment by bleeding and crying all over you.”

That probably wouldn’t diffuse any situation, but I thought of the unusual rebuttal one night, thinking of another incident that occurred so long ago that it is laughable that it still bothers me. When I found out that my sister-in-law does the same thing, I didn’t feel so alone. Her confession led me to wonder how many of us remember these character-defining, yet decades-old incidents at three in the morning? How many of us get so tense over these moments that we might as well climb out of bed, pour ourselves a bowl of cereal and watch a sitcom to try to erase that 5th grade memory from our mind. Did we dream about it? We don’t know, but we know we won’t be able to get back to sleep until we rewrite the whole memory in such a way that we end up whipping them with Indiana Jones’ bullwhip for some reason. 

The best advice I can give someone facing a similar incident is that your liberation from fear will probably occur a short time after you’ve exhausted every tactic you can think up and every resource available. It probably won’t arrive in the midst of your desperation either. The moment of liberation, in my experience, occurs shortly after you stop giving a fig what might happen. If we do it to get our bullies names Sean in the jungle to respect and like us, we probably won’t be able to muster up the conviction necessary to stop it. Similarly, if we use tactics, we probably won’t believe in them half as much as we should. What it took for me to get one of the most hated bullies in our school to leave me alone was being done with all that to the point that I no longer feared the punch to the face, the fight that followed, or whatever the final confrontation entailed. What it took for me was to approach this matter in a relatively fearless perspective, and I only reached that point after years of abuse.

The point of this article is that it’s too late for nerdy dads to do anything to change the past, but there is something we can do to alter the future of our nerdy sons. It doesn’t have to be that way. We’re not talking offensive measures. We’re talking defense. We’re talking building confidence.  

It’s possible that modern anti-bullying programs have made great strides in ending what we had to endure throughout our youth, but how do they quantify their success? I don’t know, but I’m not so confident in them that I’m going to trust that my son won’t have to find some place beyond desperation to end his torment. I also know that with the modern dictum against masculinity, I’m not supposed to encourage my son to do anything more masculine that might help him in the jungle-like climate on the playground. My guess is that even the most modern boy on the most modern playground still exhibit some of the most primal elements on the playground, when the teacher isn’t looking, and that he’s going to zero in on the boys who are afraid to fight. I know most early aged kids don’t fight each other, and most of them don’t punch each other either, and most of them probably don’t even think in such terms. My personal experience in the jungle-like atmosphere on the playground taught me that this changes much quicker than most people know.

My son got punched in the mouth in a controlled setting. The two combatants were padded up, and there was little risk of physical injury. Yet, it was still shocking for him to get hit in the face. It still felt very personal to him, and it hurt his pride. He cried as a result. 

I almost cried with him. I knew that pain, I felt that pain, and I was the little kid getting hit with no one to protect him. My initial instinct was to step in, in some way, as it appeared obvious that this kid, this bully, delighted in my child’s pain. As difficult as it was to restrain myself, I thought about that prize fighter’s quote, and I thought that this controlled environment was the best place for my child to learn how to take a punch, how to fight back, and all of the tiny, mental adjustments he needs to make to a kid who just keeps coming. 

When nerds and vegetarians think about getting hit in the mouth, they fall prey to the notion that all they need to do is counterpunch and the whole matter will resolve itself. We fall prey to the conceit that the other guy is simply testing our meddle. Some aren’t. Some love this, and they keep coming. 

When we witness it. We know it can be overwhelming, no matter how old they are. Our fatherly instincts kick in, and we don’t think it has to be this violent. We want it to end. We want to end it, but by doing so, we effectively negate the lessons learned in the jungle. We need to stay in our chair and empathize with the lesson we learned so long ago that he’s learning now. There will come a day when youth will pass away, and we won’t be there to protect them. No one will. It’s as scary for us as it is for them to learn that we’re not always going to be around to protect them, but we know this because we learned it. 

We try to be there for our kids, but we know there is a frustrating extent to that. We also know that we can alert the authority figures in our kid’s school, and we can write emails to school district leaders if the more immediate authority figures don’t respond to our satisfaction. We can become that satellite parent who ensures their safety and well-being, but there is a frustrating extent to that too. There’s a frustrating extent to any tactics that we, as parents, can employ. The best tactic available to us is to teach them how to defend themselves in the “best defense is a good offense” mindset. The tactic might teach them what it means to take a punch to the face in some relatively safe, controlled environment. If the unorthodox philosophy of the boxer in the intro of this article holds any weight, one of the elements that impede development is the fear of getting punched, will our kids be any different if they receive those shocking blows young? If we enroll them in boxing schools or one of the various martial arts schools that house heavily cushioned gloves to soften the impact of the blow so that our young kids can experience getting hit in the face without experiencing too much pain or damage, is it possible that we might be able to erase some of the stages we went through to defeat our bullies? It probably won’t have the same impact as a bare-knuckled punch, but if we want our children to lead better lives, it could liberate them from the fear that we experienced in our youth, and it might turn out to be the best money we’ve ever spent.  

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