I am, as we’ve discussed before, six foot one, overweight, both softly and well spoken and a big, big nerd. This combination, along with my fondness for thinking, reading, non physical activies and being the son of a teacher who taught at one of the same schools I attended combined to make me one single word; target. I got bullied, a lot. A lot of it was passive aggressive sniping, a lot of it was intimidation and none of it was violence.
Let me say that again, none of it was violence. I had the same quotient of deeply rubbish fights everyone else did at Primary School, actually, no that’s not true. I was occasionally provoked into a fight at Primary School but it never went far, just pushing, shoving and a small amount of physical contact. I can remember Darth Vadering someone by the throat one day when I got particularly angry but that was it. I got bullied, I took it, I got bullied some more, I took it, lather, rinse and repeat.
I did this for two reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, because confrontation terrifies me. I will cross the road to avoid telling someone something they don’t want to hear, will soak up damage and hurt and guilt because that’s easier for me than standing up for myself. Some of this comes from the fact that when it comes down to it, I’m a nice guy, some of it’s because I’m Catholic enough for the Catholic guilt to kick in and some of it is pure unadulterated terror.
I’m big. I’m not the largest person I know in terms of weight, height or muscle bulk but I’m pretty big and that brings a social contract with it, one that’s signed in utero and that you never get to finish. If you’re big, you are aware, all the time, of the damage you can do. You’re aware of what could happen if you ever cut loose, the damage you could do to someone and to your life. I always remember, when things got bad, being told that the best way to get a bully to back off was to punch them very hard in the face and break their nose. It’d bleed, it’d swell, they’d look ridiculous and they’d be in too much pain and embarassed to try it again. Vision of Batman-style disfigured bullies running through my mind, I never did it, firstly because they’d get better and then I’d get hurt and secondly because of control.
If we’re talking about control, it’s probably time we talked about Michael Garibaldi. Garibaldi is one of my pantheon of heroes, a fictional character from the old TV show Babylon 5. The station’s chief of security, Garibaldi is tall, gregarious, funny, odd and completely and utterly nailed down. He’s a man who’s made horrible mistakes and the only thing that terrifies him more than that is the thought of doing it again, something that becomes overt when the station command staff are required to express their deepest fears as part of a ceremony. The site of Garibaldi, my height, my build, my sense of humour and my hairline saying:
‘I am terrified, all the time, of what would happen if I ever lost control.’
is seared into my mind because I know, exactly, how that feels. When you’re big, you accept that you’re going to be a quarter step back from the world, a gear down because that way you’re not going to cause any damage.
Now, before you all back away slowly from the blog trying not to make eye contact let me clarify. I am not the Incredible Hulk, I’m not convinced that a red cyclone of martial violence waits to erupt from my soul because, well, there’s not really much room for it in there in amongst all the DVDs and Doctor Who tat. What I am convinced of though, is this; I’ve never been in a fight, I’ve never been in a physical confrontation and that simple fact terrifies and enthrals me.
It terrifies me because last session I got shown what it feels like to be manhandled. Jim, nice, polite, courteous Jim, got me within about ten seconds of passing out. He sunk a rear naked choke in during sparring which is essentially where you try and pop your opponent’s head like a spot between your arms and if you keep it on long enough, the blood and air supply to the brain is shut off. Long enough is about ten seconds. I would guess I was in the choke for five. I made gurgling sounds. I still felt it in the soft tissue under my chin three days later. I was in a fight. I lost. It scared me. It scared me so much, in fact, that it was an act of will to go to the next lesson, knowing I’d be doing that again. I did, I turned up, and, because the universe has a sense of humour, I was partnered with….Jim. For pretty much the entire lesson. Now, just as I’m not the Incredible Hulk, Jim isn’t some giggling pscyhopath who likes hurting people. He’s a guy my size, with more experience than me, who’s more prepared to put the aggression in than I am.
He’s also as unsure, as unconfident at times, as I am which was extraordinary to realise. As we worked through the drills, the pair of us ran through each step, did verbal checklists for each other and made sure the other one was landing the technique right. It was fascinating, and massively reassuring to experience and the lesson was immensely positive and fun. We’re all travelling the same road, as I’ve talked about before, and the funny thing is, whilst we’ve all got the same map, we’re not expected to travel at the same pace. We work, we travel, in courteous solitude, punctuated only by the sound of people hitting the floor and, from me at least, frequent giggles. Because even now, I’m still not quite able to shut up especially when something’s going well. Because make no mistake, Judo is fun. There is elegance and grace to this sport and an intellectual element that both Steve and I are devouring like large, starving men at a banquet but there’s also an inherent challenge to it. It’s a language and a language which changes depending on how loud you speak, how dynamically you act. I’ve been mumbling whilst Jim, and everyone else, has been engaging in a full on conversation. Because I’m still the fat kid at the disco on some level, that’s started to push me further away, tying in to the frustration at not being brilliant at this yet, to create a situation where I don’t try because I’m scared to fail and I’m even more scared to try let alone to win. I mean, why should I win?
Why do I deserve to?
Because I show up. Because I work hard. Because I have to get to the point where I’m gagging and retching before I step off the mat and the only way I’ll get that to stop is if I keep pushing, keep working, keep getting back up and most importantly, start trying to win. Because I do something brave every time I take my glasses off and step onto the mat. Judo is fun but the price you pay for that is accepting it’s tough too. As well as the intellectual and spiritual element of the sport, when it comes down to it, I’m learning how to fight. One of the first things they said to us was this is a rough sport and, believe me, it is. Nine weeks in I have a shoulder that’s tight every morning, a right wrist that’s taken three weeks to get to almost full rotation and knees that creak for twenty four hours after a session. But oddly, that’s a good thing. Because every time I feel one of these nagging little injuries it makes me smile at the hard work that led to me earning them. I’m out of my comfort zone and facing some of the most difficult things I’ve ever faced in my life, all of whom wear Judo suits and none of whom have recognisable faces without my glasses.
I’ve never been kicked. I’ve never been punched. I’ve never stood across from someone knowing with absolute certainty that they were going to their best to hurt me and the only way to avoid that was to subdue them, knock them down, choke them out, break their will, before they did the same thing to me. There have been countless opportunities for me to do that and I’ve talked or joked or begged or ducked my way out of each of them because I used to be terrified of finding out what would happen if I lost control. Not anymore. Now I know there’s a difference between losing control and letting go and that I can do one without doing the other. I trust my opponents completely but up until now, I haven’t trusted myself because I’ve not had the confidence to untense, to stand up, to come to grips.
Not anymore. I’m not Mike Garibaldi. I’m not the Hulk. I’m a man learning how to fit into his own body, and gaining the confidence to use that body in a way which fits it. I’m shutting up, I’m showing up and I’m coming to grips. I owe myself nothing less.