Friday, October 8, 2010

The Fight or Flight Dichotomy

I am not a violent man. I have to say that, if confronted with a physical altercation, My first impulse would be to run for my life. It's a survival instinct. I've always been skinny and unassuming, so it seems like the logical choice. But in recent years, an alternative impetus has begun to emerge.

I almost came to blows with a large man in an F-350 extended cab today. He tried to turn in front of me as I was passing through an already precarious intersection, and almost decimated my wife's Prius. Having already had a stress filled day, I'd had enough. As he screeched to a halt across the nose of my hybrid, I laid on my horn and shook my fist while my wife gestured irreverently. From the navy blue cab emerged a huge black man. His head was shaved, his face contorted into a menacing grimace, and his t-shirt could hardly contain the overflow of muscles packed into his arms. He loomed over the roof of the pickup with a scowl that could have bore a hole in my forehead. The behemoth began his march around the bed of the truck, towards my Toyota, and everything slowed to a crawl as I began to assess the situation. I was so livid that this man dare cut me off, let alone think he had the right of way. My initial reaction was to reach for my seat belt, go toe to toe with this linebacker of a man, and explain to him the traffic laws of our great state. He would see that he's fucked with the wrong skinny white dude today, and he'd get back in his truck and drive away.

Instead, as the surly giant lumbered out of his vehicle, Annie broke me from my paralysis with a commanding,

“Chris? Drive. NOW!”

With that, I snapped out of my daydream of virility and laid on the accelerator, getting as far away from that meathead as I could. My rational pacifism had returned to save my neck again. But will this sense of chivalry and physicality return again?

It seems that in the past five years or so, there has been an almost carnal impulse to defend, confront, and retaliate using force. In the past, I'd never consider it, as my self-esteem was fairly low, and my ability to envision a fist fight that didn't result in my bloody remains on the sidewalk was nonexistent.

When I was in the seventh grade, I played soccer. Our team was good, as middle school soccer teams go. We even won the district championship that year. But practices were rough. One teammate in particular made it his goal to push, poke, prod, and provoke me to the breaking point. And one day, while waiting in line for a drill, he succeeded.

He'd been punching me in the arm, repetitively, for about ten minutes. Small, consistent blows to the same spot on my dilapidated deltoid. Finally, I couldn't take it any more, and I pushed him away. I swung back my arm, my hand balled up in a little round clump of fingers and knuckles, loosely organized into a fist and let loose the hardest, most devastating blow possible. It landed on the bully's shoulder, then bounced to a rest at my side. I checked to see the result of my fury, and found only mirth and condescension. More out of shame than the physical pain he had inflicted, I began to tear up, so I ran to the locker room to avoid any further torture.

That incident had a lasting impression on my fight or flight instincts. Maybe it is the film industry that makes me feel that I've slacked in my ass kicking duties as a man in this country. Maybe, as I grow more comfortable with who I am, I will continue to stop people from pushing me around.

Whatever the reason, I've found myself appealing to fisticuffs other times as well. There was a time when my cousin and I went to a local bar in the Quad Cities to get a beer and watch a band we'd heard about. We got there and Adam went to the bar to get some drinks. After a while, he returned irritated, no drinks in hand. Without an ID, it seemed, the bar tender was unwilling to chance serving alcohol to a minor.

I then went up and got a beer. They eyed me suspiciously, as they'd seen me with Adam. After a few moments of enjoying the music and conversation, Adam got up in a huff, irritated by something.

“This is bullshit. I'll be right back.”

I watched him approach the end of the bar and begin what appeared to be a heated conversation with the bartender. Soon two gigantic men entered the discourse, at the behest of the server. It looked as if they were about to forcibly remove my cousin from the premises. That is when I realized that I had a filial duty to become involved and protect my family. As I approached the discussion, my mind went to the movies, where one person gets into a fight at a bar, and his friends are obligated to jump into the fray and bail him out. I came to the meeting with my nerves steeled, anticipating the worst. I stepped into the circle and asked Adam, in a tone that made it evident I was here for support,

“Is everything alright here?”

Adam then explained to me these gentlemen had been giving him threatening looks from across the bar, and that he would not stand for being treated in such a reproachful manner. He demanded they leave him alone. It needs to be said that my cousin is a bit more tempestuous than I, and does not have a problem flaring up in the heat of the moment. While I cannot attest to the validity of his argument that night, and I did not relish the idea of getting my face turned into ground hamburger, part of me was ready to step into the fray and offer a valiant attempt at coming to my friends defense.

Luckily the conversation calmed down, and we left the bar unscathed. But this is one more incident that leads me to wonder if I am somehow hardwired to a visceral desire for expressing this physical dominance. The feeling is by no means pervasive, but it does seem to flourish in times of extreme adrenaline rush. Is this brought on by something inherent, or is it something that is merely a product of the media, my learned response to “what a man should do when faced with a conflict”?

I am no more physically capable of defending myself in a brawl than I was in the seventh grade, save being a few feet taller. But maybe my change in self awareness and perception of the world over the past decade has given me this new aggression towards those who've caused me injustice. I don't know if I'll ever use it, but knowing it's there, somewhere in my core, is comforting.

So don't think you can push around us scrawny little white guys. We may look nerdy, but who knows what kind of fight we have inside.


  1. I had a very similar experience when I was in 7th grade! If we were really good in band over the course of a month or so, we'd get a free day where our band director would let us just play in the gym or something. This kid who played snare drum (and they're always the worst, aren't they???) kicked a ball that hit me square in the balls. This wasn't the first incident I had with him -- he was always harassing me and picking at me. But this HURT. So in my pain and outrage, I just went over to him and started punching at him, punching at anything I could hit and screaming at him. I honestly have no idea what I did or what I said (I imagine it to be really nothing more than when Ralphie hits that bully in A Christmas Story), but the band director pulled me off of him, and asked me what happened. I don't think I got in ANY trouble for it -- I think he knew that this kid was a douche, and maybe he appreciated seeing me trying to beat him up?

  2. ** sorry had to delete my first comment as I did not proofread it and wanted to fix a thought**

    ANYWAY! In my defense. I rarely - probably NEVER - give anyone an irrevernt gesture, as you put it. HOWEVER, it was a really bad day. For both of us. AND the guy really was a jerk. But I'm kind of like you, I may not be skinny or a guy, but as a white girl who was picked on for most of elementary school physical violence or irrevernt gestures was not allowed by my parents so wouldn't have gotten me anywhere. And in all honesty it isn't necissarily my first reaction to conflict. Even when fighting with my siblings I normally got punched (in the nose...blood all over a new white carpet) than did the punching. BUT! Get in a verbal arguement with me... and I'll probably kick your butt. I WAS on the debate team, you know.