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, “but I don’t see at as cruel or mean to do so. I see it as a liberating that guy 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.”

Wow, that guy had to be joking. That was just so over-the-top that it was almost funny. Once we’re done laughing, we chew on this unusual, unorthodox philosophy, and we realize that it makes some sort of twisted sense. We think about how much we did to avoid a fight in junior high and high school, and we think about how liberating it might have been if we had no fear of getting punched in the face so hard that no one will ever be able to duplicate it. Aside from the pain involved, there is something shocking about getting punched in the face. If the same person delivered a similar blow to our stomach, it might hurt just as bad, but it wouldn’t feel quite as shocking or personal. 

If we didn’t receive such a blow by the time we graduated from 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 boxer proposed.

I never heard this theory when I was young, but I can tell you that this fear of getting punched did not influence my reaction to Sean throwing a wadded up ball of piece of paper at my face, and it wasn’t a feat of bravery either. By the time Sean threw that at me, to impress Dave, I’d simply had enough.

Dave was the superstar defensive tackle, in our high school, who would go onto play college ball. 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 who were near him, on the hierarchical totem pole of teenagers, often received his proverbial boot to their 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 that Sean and Dave found it hilarious.

I didn’t waste a second. I grabbed that ball of paper, threw it in Sean’s face, and 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 star, 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, 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 proceeded 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 good, quality schools, we never had to fight before, and we feared that the guy, challenging our manhood, might expose that.

We’ve witnessed all of the non-confrontational tactics our fellow nerds used to try to end their torment. We’ve witnessed some try laughing with their bullies, as if that might convince their bully 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.” Most of us never tried this tactic, because we never saw it work. 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. Nerds cannot overdo it either, 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 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 usually situational.

After Sean and I received our tongue-lashing from the teacher, Sean turned to me, as we walked away from the teacher’s desk, “Why did you do that? Why did you get us in trouble?” The disdain in his voice, and face, made it clear that Sean wasn’t trying to double-talk me into accepting blame for what happened. His attempt to deflect blame did not dumbfound me either, for I knew a number of kids who genuinely didn’t understand the role they played in such incidents. Kids, and young adults, aren’t equipped with rational or objective thinking, but some of us were forced to acknowledge our roles in such incidents so often that we knew better. Others, particularly only children, only boys in the family, and the youngest child, often luxuriate in a golden child syndrome without consciously knowing it. Sean obviously thought he was just being silly, and he thought the act of hitting someone flush in the face with a ball of paper is funny. Doesn’t everyone think that’s funny? I probably shouldn’t try to psychoanalyze Sean’s reaction too much, but it was obvious that he thought my reaction to it was so over the top that if I wasn’t going to apologize for it, I should at least accept most of the blame for us getting in trouble.

Thus, I knew saying, “You started it” was a complete waste of everyone’s time, because he would’ve said the same back, and we would’ve engaged in that stupid, little dance. “I’ll tell you what,” I said, looking him straight in the eye. “You stay in your little corner of the world, and I’ll stay in mine. As far as I’m concerned you don’t exist from this day forward, and if you are able treat me the same way, then we’ll get along just fine.” That wasn’t a line I dreamed up, or some sort of nerd tactic. I meant every word of it.

Sean did not abide by that resolution. He tested my resolve in the ensuing days, by walking uncomfortably close to me, looking me in the eye, saying things like, “Hey, what up dude?” in a deep, baritone voice. These greetings were as confrontational as any non-confrontational greeting can be. He was testing our boundaries for some reason, but I ignored him as if he were on another planet, as I said I would.  

This continued for a couple days, until he said “What up?” in a non-confrontational tone that lacked confrontation. I ignored him as if he were from another planet, but I did notice that his tone was no longer sarcastic. In the following days, this kid wouldn’t leave me alone. Every time Sean saw me, he hello’d me in all the variations a teen hellos another teen. Was he violating my dictum? He was, but in some peculiar ways he wasn’t. Sean obviously developed some odd form of respect for me in the course of that week.

“I meant what I said,” I told him after about the third such greeting.

“Ok,” he said, and he said nothing more.

“Then, what are you doing?”

“Just saying hi.”

I was suspicious, skeptical and cynical, but I replied, “Hi!” back in a deep, baritone voice that mocked his earlier one. After doing that once or twice, I began saying hi back to him on occasion, and begrudgingly, because I felt some bizarre need to be polite. Other than those few occasions when I acknowledged another human being, being polite, I maintained the suspicious, skeptical and cynical nature combined with whatever distance I established a week prior.      

Before turning polite, I think Sean believed that my desire to get him to like me and/or respect me fueled my reaction to him. As much as I hate to write this, girls adored that kid. They considered him good-looking, well dressed, and cool, and they considered me the antithesis of all that. I can only guess that that in Sean’s world order, he thought I spent the time we shared in school involved me looking up at him with some form of child-like adoration. We’ve all seen that movie where the nerd eventually manages to find some unique ways to gain respect from the cool kids. We leave those movies thinking that’s every nerd’s goal in life. This was not one of those stories. I’m not going to write that I didn’t envy him, or that I would’ve loved to change places with him, but I did not like him, and I didn’t respect him. 

I didn’t know what he was up to when he started saying hello to me in a polite, nice manner, and I was so suspicious that I figured it was only a matter of time before I found out what the master ploy of his congenial manner was. I figured it might result in some cinematic scene of the cool kid exacting some revenge for getting him in trouble, but it never did.

We nerds try a number of tactics. We try telling the teacher, and we try out smarting our bullies. I can only guess that the tactic I used in this case worked, because it wasn’t a tactic. I also proved, over the course of the next week that it wasn’t a tactic, and that I didn’t care if my reaction to his wadded up ball of paper led to a final confrontation.

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 a 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 and literally, 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 a little one 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 don’t know what I’m 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 would be a shot heard ‘round our 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 high school. 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 to 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 did lead 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 the Seans of our life 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 for nerdy dads who fear that their nerdy sons are headed down the same road, it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s possible that all of these modern anti-bullying programs have made great strides in ending what I had to endure throughout my youth, but I don’t know how statisticians would go about quantifying their success. I’m also 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 he’s going to zero in on the boy who’s 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.

We can 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 their more immediate authority figures don’t respond to our satisfaction. We can become that satellite parent ensures the safety and well-being of our kid, 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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