Why: A Pugilist’s Explanation

If you have ever been punched in the face or beaten badly, the idea of doing it by choice sounds like a bad idea; no, make that a dumb idea. In defending my love of fighting, quite often I find myself explaining to people that any kind of fighting is actually rooted deep in our sub consciousness. In learning to fight and reveal the origins of fighting, we learn about each other and ourselves.

Violence and the knowledge of violence, our perspective on the violence we commit, are tools of the stewardship of humanity in the world. Humans killed animals for food long before learning to grow it.

Violence began as a means of survival. The desire to combine that act with religion and art to create a spiritual experience to try and solve the dilemma of taking life has deep footholds in the subconscious that still exist in the mind of the modern man. Today these instinctual drives are turned on other people. War and its narratives stand to benefit the nation-state, but the practice of hand-to-hand combat to experience the primal mind redeems itself instead of killing the “enemy”.

Early European cave paintings are where the thrill and violence of the hunt embrace art and the spiritual life. “In the art of this period, you see human beings trying to enter fully into the flow of life, so that they become part of the whole process of animal life that’s going on all around them … and this is actually a very religious impulse.’” ([Rowan Williams] Karen Armstrong. “Fields of Blood.” pg. 20)

Looking at the connections made between killing animals and the urge to express that act in a form of art shaped the ways in which humanity met its own demand for a place in the circle of life alongside the other creatures. According to Karen Armstrong this drive to express this connection is best described as a function of the neocortex (part of the brain responsible for conscious thought) to seek out or create religious experiences, using art to memorialize (selectively) and escape the struggle of existence, allowing more favorable sensations to take place, creating space for them to be experienced in the mind through art.

“Much of what we now call ‘religion’ was originally rooted in an acknowledgment of the tragic fact that life depended on the destruction of other creatures; rituals were addressed to helping human beings face up to this insoluble dilemma… Millennia of fighting large aggressive animals meant that these hunting parties became tightly bonded teams that were the seeds of our modern armies, ready to risk everything for the common good and to protect their fellows in moments of danger. And there was one more conflicting emotion to be reconciled: they probably loved the excitement and intensity of the hunt.” (Karen Armstrong. “Fields of Blood.” pg. 22)

Among the more favorable emotions found in the neural cocktail that humans imbibe in the hunt are adrenaline, satisfaction, fulfillment, even happiness, joy and pride. Especially in the context of the Stone Age thousands of years ago hunting was sport, danger, entertainment, gambling, competition, occupation and sustenance all wrapped up into one. Much like Cain who was proficient at killing animals and eventually found the same proficiency at killing his brother, early hunters continued that tradition in history, experiencing many of the same thrills of camaraderie and teamwork in the face of death or starvation regardless of their targets humanity (or lack thereof).

“Here again the limbic system comes into play. The prospect of killing may stir our empathy, but in the very acts of hunting, raiding, and battling, this same seat of emotions is awash in serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for the sensation of ecstasy that we associate with some forms of spiritual experience. So it happened that these violent pursuits came to be perceived as sacred activities, however bizarre that may seem to our understanding of religion. People, especially men, experienced a strong bond with their fellow warriors, a heady feeling of altruism at putting their lives at risk for others and of being more fully alive. This response to violence persists in our nature…” (Karen Armstrong. “Fields of Blood.” pg. 22)

One can even go as far as pointing out the similarities found in sports teams and the feelings of camaraderie found in the thrill of winning and effort. The common bond found in working together, running, risking, struggling for a common cause all find a home in the brain of the modern man just as they did thousands of years ago. Reliving anything so close to the primal struggles of early man becomes deeply satisfying, even validating as rites of passage or sex.

Experiencing this wash of ecstasy through the hunt was so deeply connected to survival that making it more enjoyable, efficient, encouraging it and embracing it in art, perpetuating the religious experience was only plausible from the early human perspective. Much like our ancestors, modern man still revels in the seat of these experiences. Violence has turned into warfare, but the basic elements of the hunt have not changed.

“War makes the world understandable, a black-and-white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially self-critical thought. All bow before the supreme effort. We are one. Most of us willingly accept war as long as we can fold it into a belief system that paints the ensuing suffering as necessary for a higher good; for human beings seek not only happiness but also meaning. And tragically, war is sometimes the most powerful way in human society to achieve meaning.” (Chris Hedges. “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning”. Amnesty International Magazine.)

The same feelings of altruism found in hunting to protect the tribe from starvation, risking one’s life for the greater good are all primal drives that still find their place in society, working their way into the hunter’s mind of modern man just as readily as the cave paintings from Spain and France. The redeeming narrative that overrides the taboos of unjustified killing takes many forms, continuing the tradition of the hunt.

One such Vietnam veteran shares his reflections on his time in combat:

“The worst thing I can say about myself is that while I was there I was so alive. I loved it the way you can like an adrenaline high, the way you can love your friends, your tight buddies. So unreal and the realest thing that ever happened… And maybe the worst thing for me now is living in peacetime without a possibility of that high again. I hate what that high was about but I loved that high… I went so far down after I came back to this real world. I used whatever I could to get the feeling back… After that speed of things going off all at once, that trust of those guys, that absolute trust, loyalty – yeh, love. The only way to get some of it back is to live high on drugs or to get high on some of the danger or to remember what happened.” (International Crimes and Other Gross Human Rights Violations: A Multi- and Interdisciplinary Textbook. pg 56)

Clearly one can see the parallels found between this altered state of consciousness found in warfare and the experience of the hunters or raiding parties set on providing for their families. What’s more is that this soldier finds himself at odds with being separated from the experience now that it is over.

In his book “David and Goliath”, Malcolm Gladwell finds that the “high” found in combat is also shared to some extent by victims of bombings, more particularly the civilians of London during Germany’s bombing raids during WWII.

“… people who listen to sirens, watch the enemy bombers overhead, and hear the thunder of exploding bombs. But the bomb hits down the street or the next block over and for them the, the consequences of the bombing are exactly the opposite (of those who are traumatized or killed)… They survived, and the second or third time that happens, the emotion associated with the attack, MacCurdy (The Structure of Morale. 1943.) wrote, ‘is a feeling of excitement with a flavor of invulnerability.'” (Malcolm Gladwell. David and Goliath. pg. 132)

Here even outside of the context of the hunt, the feelings of adrenaline and thrill of danger are still present. They are no different here than they are in mind of any person who feels the pleasures of invincibility or pride in survival.

This understanding of danger, given Gladwell’s take on MacCurdy’s The Structure of Morale, explains that there is really no need to be a soldier or hunter to revel in this experience of excitement in the face of danger.

Canadian psychiatrist J. T. MacCurdy is his aforementioned The Structure of Morale writes on this condition, “We are also prone to be afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration… when we have been afraid that we may panic in an air-raid, and, when it has happened we have exhibited to others nothing but a calm exterior and we are now safe, the contrast between the previous apprehension and the present relief and feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage.” (pg. 14)

Fighting as a form of expression or art in a sport presents now a combination of drives found as in history as early as the cave paintings in southwestern France. Unarmed combat becomes a place for all of these experiences to combine, taking fighter back to the experiences of intensity, a higher reality, an intensity that drove humanity forward since the beginning of history, but without the death and loss of war.

For these drives and experiences to be embraced through fighting as a sport or art is a special and redeeming expression of the meanings offered by other methods found in militaries, or other explicit narratives encouraging of violence on the behalf of others. It is a violence first for the self, but as an individual’s journey, it becomes a place for all of the other feelings and values to take root once again that have been miserably vexed and flayed over the centuries.

Muhammad Ali shares his own sentiments on belief and as a boxer (one of the best ever). “It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen,” Ali said. ““He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”

Is it so hard to believe that as a boxer Ali was fulfilling his own desires for meaning as an individual? Or that his journey of taking risks and inflicting violence on his opponents was so different from the experiences of the hunt? As one of the best ever and the best in the world during his lifetime, Ali was a devout Muslim. His own beliefs undoubtedly perpetuated his own efforts as he continued on his journey throughout his career of upset victories and sacrifices of his health for the glory of Allah.

Is it so hard to see that it is possible to believe in meaning or higher good of our own making? This is the question of a fighter. This is my question and my answer is simple.

Fighting is not void of reason, meaning or happiness; it is in fact full of all of these things, rich in purpose, overflowing with feelings of connection, invincibility, strength and vindication.

I find satisfaction in knowing that even my most primal drives feed these religious encounters and can give new life to a society that so seriously works to direct these drives for me. My efforts as a fighter are redeemed. Fighting as I practice it has more merit than fighting as a means for one country to dominate another. The challenges brought to me by fighting are revealed to me as opportunities to succeed as a follower of Jesus. By breaching the darkness of fear with the light of Christ’s life, telling the story of how it has shaped me, God’s love continues to provide hope and sustenance for my soul in ways that primal hunting rituals cannot even approach.

Works Cited:

  1. Karen Armstrong. “Fields of Blood.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/lEfs0.l
  1. Chris Hedges. “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning”. Amnesty International Magazine.) http://www.amnestyusa.org/news/news-item/war-is-a-force-that-gives-us-meaning
  1. International Crimes and Other Gross Human Rights Violations: A Multi- and Interdisciplinary Textbook. https://books.google.com/books/about/International_Crimes_and_Other_Gross_Hum.html?id=zQ7r-3IT7FgC
  1. Malcolm Gladwell. “David and Goliath”. https://books.google.com/books?id=oICRAwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=malcolm+gladwell+david+and+goliath&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CCYQ6AEwAGoVChMIy8Wsr_S5yAIVgmseCh0SoQs8#v=onepage&q=malcolm%20gladwell%20david%20and%20goliath&f=false
  1. J. T. MacCurdy. “The Structure of Morale”. https://books.google.com/books?id=RBqTAgAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
  1. Muhammad Ali. Various sources. http://www.positivityblog.com/index.php/2010/11/12/muhammad-ali/

5 thoughts on “Why: A Pugilist’s Explanation

  1. I thought it was very interesting that you included a quote with a veteran who felt a high while serving, I think we constantly think of veterans and PTSD, which is very prominent, but the idea that they enjoy war at a primal level was super interesting.

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    1. Ive never been a soldier on a battle field but I can relate to feeling elevated or “more real” when I’m in my zone slipping punches and choking out my training partners. Its addicting. What I believe though is that there is a freedom from PTSD in that. I think that veteran can find what he’s looking for.

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  2. Interesting thoughts Scott! Particularly that conflict is so deeply seated in the human psyche. I’d love to know more about how you show Christ’s light in the darkness of fear found in the fighting world. Next article!

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  3. Wow! This was phenomenal! So carefully laid out, supported and drawn together. I don’t train in the same forms that you do (or as many) but even in the acquisition of a skill set and aiming to avoid the fight, I know how I feel an expansion in my soul, a quickening and readying of my spirit and my senses as I step up to spar with someone or even as I am creating stunt/fight choreography. I feel something roaring in the distance, moving closer and preparing to strike – it is indeed very animalistic and natural – and liberating.
    How interesting to at last have a context for this stirring up. Thank you for shedding light on this and several other profound aspects of the purpose and art of the fight. So good!

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