Punch Him in the Face

“Did it feel good,” I asked on the drive home, “to punch him in the face?”

“I barely touched him,” Carl said, a statement that might have been defensive but also happened to be true.

I know because I watched the whole thing play out on the rink in front of me in one of those slow-mo gut wrenches from the sidelines. First the illegal cross-check in the back on one of our players, the whistle, the players from both teams pulled to the spot  by the invisible elasticity of aggression, and a quick, warning cuff to the offender’s face mask from Carl.

Penalty for the cross-checker and incident closed.

I hate fights—not for Miss America reasons, but because I hate the sudden shot of adrenaline, the queasy flipping of that fight or flight switch in my gut. That’s one of the worst feelings in the world to me. Partially because I have no sense of proportion and seeing someone get aggressive with Carl on the rink sets my brain to planning the easiest way to subdue and potentially kill the aggressor.

As long as his back was toward me, I could come up from behind and kick out his knees and then—no, hockey sticks break too easily, I would need something heavier…

Yeah, I’m not proud of that, but that’s how my brain works. I have no concept of fighting for fun or honor. Violence is always to be avoided, but if it can’t be then all physical threats are equally scary, and all threats must be eliminated as efficiently as possible. Think sniper in camo, not knight in shining.

But Carl doesn’t feel like that. To him, hockey fights are like a contract. By joining the game, all players have agreed to abide by the rules of the game, and that includes the rules about how and when it’s ok to be physically aggressive.

“Wouldn’t you have felt bad,” I probed curiously, “if you actually hurt him?”

Carl says no.

This is interesting to me, because I always feel awful after hurting someone. Not that I’ve ever in my life punched someone in the face. I don’t hit people. I haven’t yelled at anyone since I was a kid. I don’t slap or brawl. I don’t even play contact sports.

But I do like to debate with people. It’s a sharper, colder kind of game. And way more fun.

Ok, I admit. I sometimes visit a debate chatroom where you can argue about anything from politics to pacifiers.

But debating is no brawl either. It comes with it’s own honor system: Like boxing, you don’t fight people who aren’t in your brain weight. That’s not fair. You don’t debate with somebody who doesn’t want to debate (although publicly proclaiming one’s rightness about something is the debaters equivalent of dropping gloves). You don’t attack your opponent’s personality or worth. Debates are always about ideas, not about the people involved.

I like to debate because I like to think and it’s important to me to be able to express my opinions about something, especially when I meet someone who’s already loudly proclaiming his or her opinions on the same topic.

But, win or lose, I almost always feel badly afterwards.

It’s fascinating to me that some people don’t.

“I missed my calling,” I said. “I should’ve been a hockey player.” It’d be nice to be able to settle fights without feeling badly about it.

Or maybe it has nothing to do with the arena and everything to do with the personality. Maybe I just have way more guilt than Carl does, some kind of twisted sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of others—even those who are trying to give me a verbal beat down.

For the most part, I just try to ignore the bad feeling. I learned a long time ago that my conscience isn’t trustworthy. If something bothers me, then I’ll examine the issue more closely. But if I still can’t find any sort of actual, legitimate reason for the internal discomfort, I try to ignore the bad feeling and do whatever I want. I swear I could feel badly about anything if I really tried.

And of course there are times when the distress is deserved, and I realize I’ve been unfair or unnecessarily harsh or bullying. But rarely do I think about the other person, who has almost invariably been equally unfair, harsh, and bullying. I think I just feel badly because aggression of any kind feels “wrong” to me.

This would be the correct place for a feminist reading of the situation, but I’m not entirely sure whether it’s a gender thing so much as a personal thing. It certainly could be true that the majority of women have trouble expressing aggression without the accompanying guilty backlash. It makes a kind of ideologic sense: girls are not encouraged nearly as much as boys are to engage in sports or other competitive pastimes. We expect boys to fight, and however outdated the concept of “fair fights” on the playground might be, it’s still much easier to picture two boys meeting honorably to bash each other’s faces in than it is to picture two girls doing the same thing.

It makes sense, but I’m not sure it’s true.

It would also make sense that men aren’t as quick to admit to those feelings of responsibility, anxiety, or guilt that it’s no skin off my nose to admit. I’m very comfortable with my anxiety and guilt, thanks, but if you labored under the delusion of strength (which is, after all, nothing but a random dot on a spectrum) then I can see why you might simply be less willing to connect to your sense of guilt.

Or maybe it’s purely personal and has everything to do with my own set of experiences and upbringing in a conservative, religious family where godly people didn’t do a whole lot of things that it sure seems now like everybody actually does, godly or otherwise.

I don’t know.

But I might need to find some studies on aggression now, because after all these hockey fights and Facebook debates, my curiosity is growing.

What do you think? How does your aggression come out and how does it interact with your sense of guilt or responsibility?

Am off to research…

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2 thoughts on “Punch Him in the Face

  1. This was super interesting to me. I feel just like you do about debates and aggression. I HATE conflict. But I also have debate tendencies. And then there’s the part about how I write controversial blog posts. If I start shaking when people upbraid me for having more than two children and not helping win the bread, I probably shouldn’t go around telling people how great it all is. Your phrase “I could feel bad about anything” also really struck a chord with me. Did you know that our Grandma was like that in spades? She used to get teased by someone (I think it was one of Lant Henna’s boys) that “If there’s a train wreck in the next county, it’s Aunt Betty’s fault.” Maybe there’s a gene for guilt???

  2. I love the idea of a guilt gene. Let’s carve that one out, shall we?

    I think it’s hilarious and honest and somehow great that you asked Carl if it felt good to hit the other guy. Love the way you process.

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