The psychology of your first fistfight

Got the excellent video above from Drew. It’s a great interview with an author named Andre Dubus III who talks about fist fighting and what he learned from doing it.

I don’t know what the rest of you felt before a fist fight as an adult (if you’ve been in one), but there is a flash moment before you throw your first punch where you think about the consequences. You don’t want to do it. You’ll do anything you can to avoid it. But once the first punch lands on your assailant’s face, some “membrane” in you breaks. And as Dubus says, it (unfortunately, in my opinion) makes it that much easier to get into fights again and again. There’s some sort of rush/fear that’s very hard to replicate in other ways. Plus, the hesitation no longer exists.

I’d agree with what Dubus says, but I think it’s slightly different for Asian American men. The first time, I wasn’t thinking about avoiding my opponent’s personal space. Instead, I was thinking that I was Asian and he was White (as he was reminding me with the racial slurs coming from his mouth), and that I could go to prison after punching a White man and facing a racist court system, even though he was trying to shove me off a subway platform. There must have been a point where I realized that prison, as much as it could suck, was probably not as bad as touching the third rail or getting run over by a moving train.

Like Dubus, it’s been years since I’ve been in a fist fight, probably at least ten years, way before kids and marriage. I’m out of shape these days and can’t do half of what I used to do, but there is something that changes in you when you’ve done it.

(I don’t know if it’s good or bad. I probably don’t want either of my kids to be in that situation where they have to physically fight to save their own lives. Although I would like to see them compete in either judo or jujitsu…)

11 thoughts on “The psychology of your first fistfight

  1. Oh, I just checked out Drew’s post on his site. I don’t think you want to know about my experiences…

    The first time I got into a fight, I may have been 8 years old. The teacher had asked us to bring a small, live animal or insect to school for show and tell. I was very excited about this. Since the earliest age I was enthralled by the beauty and vibrancy of nature. I took one week to find a suitable specimen with the help of my mother. My father was not around. I experienced some genuine moments of visceral horror when I discovered that dragonflies could actually be DECAPITATED by butterfly nets. That sort of stuff almost wrecked my mind. I picked myself up though and a day before the big day I managed to capture a butterfly without hurting it. I put it into a glass jar and poked holes into the lid to make sure it could breathe. It was then that I realised that I didn’t have the slightest clue about what a butterfly ate or how I could feed it to keep it alive in that jar, but because it just had to sit in there for one day before I let it go, I told myself it would be okay.

    So when the big day finally came, to call it a letdown would be an understatement. The teacher and nobody in the class gave a shit about the live creatures they brought to school. Most didn’t. The teacher was bored and moved on to reading and writing the contents of a textbook on to the blackboard as was the usual procedure. You see, the teachers in my country are poorly educated and only became teachers for the sake of lifetime employment with the government. I was quite unsettled by all this but worse was to come.

    I had been the target of bullying for quite a while because I was new to the school and had not made any friends yet due to my introverted nature and also other barriers of race, class and even language. One troublemaker, during a short break between classes, decided that he wanted to have some fun with me, and seized the jar with my butterfly within it that the teacher had made me put at the back of the class just so my stupid desk could have the proper student’s things on it. So this piece of shit who was just as old as I was, eight years old, took my butterfly, saw that I wanted it back, and started threatening to hurt the creature inside but what he was actually doing was sadistically toying with me and getting a high out of my fear and anxiety. He did this for several minutes, with the threats of smashing the jar with the butterfly with it on the ground, et cetera.

    This was my butterfly, I felt responsible for it. It was I who had captured it in the first place. I wanted to bring it to show and tell and hopefully share its beauty and wonder with other people. I didn’t expect what was to come. I also loved living things so I couldn’t understand why someone would hurt or kill for its own sake. I also knew that if I pretended that the butterfly’s life didn’t matter in order to bluff, then that kid would have immediately called my bluff and killed it. I tried looking fierce, I tried threats, it didn’t work, I looked around for the teacher, no adult was near, I looked at my classmates, half were amused and laughing and the other half didn’t care, I tried to chase the bastard and get my butterfly back, he just ran in circles around a desk and I couldn’t get him. And all the while the little sadist was getting more and more amused and happy by how upset I was. This lasted for quite some time. It was torture. The feelings of powerlessness, violation, alienation and loneliness, worse of all may have been the knowledge that I was alone and nobody would help stand up for me.

    When I reached my breaking point, tears streamed down my face. But I didn’t sit down and cry because I knew that’s what the little sadist and his friends wanted. I decided that if one creature would die that day then so would another. There was a real sense that I would be destroying some kind of malevolent evil. Then I treated that butterfly as if it were ALREADY dead. I shoved the desk that coward had been hiding behind out of my way, took up a chair, lifted it up, SCREAMED to put all my strength into it, and prepared to smash it down on that little fuck.

    At that moment all the apathetic bystanders and amused witnesses decided to spring into action, but to dogpile me. I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t go anywhere. One guy climbed on my back, another two fellows were holding on to my arms. The others were shouting at me. They couldn’t take the chair away but I couldn’t lift it either. I was still standing and trying to move but I couldn’t really chase down that stupid little fuck with enough speed. I remember that his face was pale but he still didn’t have the sense to put down the jar with my butterfly in it. In fact he was holding it like his life depended on it. I bellowed and raged like some kind of animal for a few minutes before I realised that it was useless and so I gave up and sat down and let go of the chair. The three kids clinging on to me let go also, but sat close by like prison wardens.

    I started retreating deep into my own mind. I was dimly aware of the accusations that started being heaped on me when a teacher finally reached the class. I remember a little bit the looks I started getting seemingly from the whole world. I do remember that everybody left me alone, nobody, not even an adult, had the guts to ask me to face my accusers or even ask me what had happened. But the looks stayed. The worst thing was that later that day, there was absolutely nobody I could talk to about this. Certainly not even my own family.

    When I finally started looking for my butterfly later that day, I found out that it was already dead and unmoving in the jar. I prodded it, nudged it to see if there was still life in it, it didn’t move. At the time I couldn’t possibly guess why it had died. I thought that maybe it was because I didn’t feed it and had kept it too long in the jar without food or water. But actually, I felt that the moment I had decided it was already dead was the moment it had passed away.

    After that day, violence became easy. Holding back became difficult.

    That is the story. I don’t think it has any moral values in it.

  2. Raguel – Your story reminds me of a couple of incidents similar to yours back in my childhood. Shit like that stays with you simply because it leaves an impression. And trying to kill someone at 8 years old? It was just in the moment…naw we were all just kids, as far as I’m concerned I’ve moved on. But I’ll admit, there are those who I won’t mind calling out now and challenging them to a fight.

    Okay Jaehwan, your turn. Any stories?

  3. Sadly incidences like that just kept happening well into my early adulthood. You know when I was sixteen I saw all this hollywood movies about young adults finding love and intimacy for the first time. You know what my sixteen was like? It was women being cloistered at school or the home who didn’t want to have anything to do with boys because they knew they needed to reserve themselves for a better life. It was being told that we were worthless unless we were useful. It was gangs of other teenage boys forcing other boys to become substitute women and sex objects. What filth is this?

    The only way to stop something like that from happening to you is the ultra-violence and the willingness to KILL.

    For years I felt that if I could force march the denizens of the town I grew up in into concentration camps at gunpoint and then burn everything to the ground, it would be a good thing. I look back at the past today and I’m so happy that I’ve left so much of it behind. Much, but not all. If someone attacked something or someone I care about, I might not be able to stop myself from executing a defeated foe.

  4. Oops, sorry about that–I can’t actually answer that question because doing so would violate one of my most important rules: don’t write anything that you wouldn’t want your kids to read (or worse, emulate). Would tell the story over beer, but since I’m public and non-anonymous and this site is available everywhere…

    Sorry about that. Didn’t mean to raise that question without being able to answer it.

    But I do think that Drew’s posting of the video is great. That’s more or less exactly what it feels like and what happens. I do think it’s helpful for men to contemplate it.

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