There are definite before/after moments in life. Before that flat tire you should’ve checked your air pressure; after, you wish were on your way without this setback. Before the car died you could’ve pulled in to that gas station, but you passed it up and ran out of gas. After, you are forced to pull over. Before, you thought, “I can make it to the next exit.”
In his book Cut Time(Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2003) Carlo Rotella examines lessons in life through boxing and boxers, and the before/after impact of blunt trauma they receive in the ring. Like a boxer prepares for his next fight and its outcome, so the author’s aging grandma prepared for the ending of her life and outcome. She conserved her energy in her old age as a boxer titrates his in the ring in order to make it to his destination, the next exit.
“Hurt carries meaning; it can educate you,” the author writes. “Violence asserts order on things.” Walter Mosley agrees, “Pain is the only way most men learn anything.”
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was right: People’s tolerance for pain — like a boxer — is highest when they have some. “That which does not kill me,” he said, “makes me stronger.” But how much pain should you endure? How much punishment — like a boxer — can you sustain before a collapse?
A boxer is like a woman who stays with her man wondering how many rounds she can take. How many should she take? Pugilist Roberto Duran said in the ring, “No mas!” (No more.) When will she?
“[Hurt] can also rob you of your capacity to learn or feel, or even to think,” Rotella writes, like your neighbor whose face is so robbed of vitality, so filled with defeat, that she walks without looking up or even looking around. Her mouth, like her eyes, turns down.
How desperate can a man be to climb in the ring? “Will I ever be desperate enough?” a woman could ask, to do what prostitutes, strippers, porno stars do. “What would it take to get me to do that? How desperate would I have to be? How many of us could get in the ring and box?
Richard Nelson, a St. Paul boxer (amateur circa 1977-78), invited friends to attend his match. In the matches before his we were mere observers, but when he came under attack we started shouting at him to hurt the other guy so he wouldn’t get hurt. We could see the impact of the blows, the hurt. We covered our eyes. We cared.
The “cataclysmic impact,” the author tells us, of a hard blow can be a life-changing before/after epiphany to, in his words, render/explain/reorder/reconcile and balance not only a boxer’s life, but also yours. He gives the example of “Gary.” Gary’s December 1987 motor vehicle accident (while heading eastbound on I-694 toward St. Paul) became his before/after event. It changed his life when his injuries and the outcome were permanent.
A fistic dictum: Watch what you’re doing. Pay attention. Stay focused. You’re riding along, your mind drifts off, you hit a pothole. “[Boxer Rudy] Ellis left a big wide hole in his defense. Quick as a cat [his opponent] Hank landed a potent left hook to the stomach and followed with an even more powerful right to the chin and the fight was over.” (Source: BoxRec.com)
“What if such and such had not happened?” you ask. Regrets are the daughter who told her father now that she is sober that in her drug-induced stupor she missed her son’s growing-up years. She can’t have that time back.
Regret is the irrevocable, the choices we can’t change, decisions we can’t take back. (An old adage says that given the choice to relive your life, walking through woods seeing lives on trees, you would pluck your own.)
The transformative force from a blow makes us strange and new, Rotella says, and trauma gave Gary “more discipline, confidence, patience; he was less governed by fear.” When we have not walked through trauma, we have not conquered it. When you’re between things we could use down time to hunker down, prioritize, sit one out. Regroup. Stop. Think.
When you let your guard down you’re distracted, trusting even. You lighten up. Forget. “Be present,” Jessica Lange told college graduates at their commencement ceremony, “because ultimately you life is made up of moments.”
The fistic dictum says protect yourself at all times. Did Whitney Houston forget? Let down her guard? Does Madonna lapse into gentle amnesia? Never.
Elizabeth Ellis is the mother of three grown children, a college graduate, a 10-year veteran of the Foreign Service and a native of the Twin Cities. She welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.