On Getting Punched in the Face

Every so often I have a dream in which I’m fighting someone – maybe to stop them from doing something bad or because they did something I didn’t like… you know, dream stuff. Without fail, every time I fight in a dream I am completely ineffective. I hit the other person over and over and over again, but my punches don’t make any impact. They just stand there and laugh at me – it’s very disconcerting.

In real life, however, I was recently invited to join the fight team at the gym I train at. It’s not quite as dramatic as it sounds – they just practice together at a higher level than in the normal classes and have a special emphasis on fight training. If they think you’re tough enough, experienced enough, and/or skilled enough, they ask you to join. The coach who invited me, Brylan, seems to have taken a special interest in making sure I am up to the increased intensity of sparring. His after-class habit lately has been to call me over, tell me to put my gloves on, and set the clock for five minutes. He doesn’t really ask “Hey Zach, would you like to get beat up by a professional MMA fighter for a bit?” He just starts the clock.

Sparring with Brylan is probably one of the hardest and most exhilarating things I have ever done. Just to be clear, he is nowhere near fighting his hardest against me (for an example of what that would in fact look like, go here and start at 1:30). But he also isn’t anywhere near going easy on me. He hits hard and fast, he doesn’t let up when I’m getting tired, and he doesn’t even stop if I am bleeding profusely from the face. (It was once suggested to him that maybe he should. His response was: “Zach always gets a bloody nose. He’s fine.”)

And he’s right.

What I am so deeply grateful for in Brylan is that he sees in me the potential and the desire to be a better fighter. Not only that, but he honors what he sees in me by beating me up on a semi-regular basis. If, when we sparred, he just kicked my ass and hurt me, it would be demoralizing and discouraging. If he took it easy on me, it would be demeaning and disrespectful. Instead, Brylan pushes me right up to and then a little bit past my limits. Every time I spar with him I come away a better fighter. Smarter, faster, tougher, grittier, and more unafraid. After facing him in the ring, most other people don’t intimidate me that much.

The first time I ever sparred with Brylan – which was long before I joined the fight team – his feedback for me after thrashing me around for a while was “Well you didn’t pussy out and run away the whole time like some people do.” Despite the fact that I was hurting all over and bleeding from my nose, this made me feel ludicrously proud.

Yesterday after fighting Brylan for a grueling five minutes with the whole gym watching, I was beaten up probably a little more than the first time. (My defense is way better than a few months ago, but that just means he hits harder and faster.) But this time he didn’t have to scrape so close to the bottom of the barrel for positive feedback. He just grinned and said “nice work.” I knew I’d landed a few good hits of my own.

I feel a little rough today – congested in the head (I presume from getting punched in the face so much?) and sore all over with a tender jawline and a fat lip. But I had a dream last night in which I beat up two high schoolers at a concert. So I’m calling it a win.

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we are here to be Ourselves

There’s an exercise I created for my senior thesis in nursing school. I put up a picture of a hospital patient in an intensive care unit. Clustered around the bed are the legions of medical equipment and devices used to sustain life at its most fragile moments: ventilator, cardiac monitor, IV pump, oxygen, defibrillator. A nurse is hanging an IV medication – stethoscope around her neck and a plethora of medical supplies in her many pocketed scrubs.
“What is the most important tool in this picture?” I ask. The audience’s answers vary, but eventually someone gets the one I’m shooting for, which is “the nurse.”

My mother has a little trouble with the fact that I get into cage-matches every once in a while. I’ve been training in Muay Thai for a couple years now and last night I wrote her a long email after a tough sparring session trying to capture why I love it so much. What it comes down to is this: You bring nothing into the cage but yourself – what you have made yourself capable of, what you can force your body do, the depths of fatigue, pain, and fear that your mind and your spirit have the power to overcome. The other man in the cage is not your opponent. He is your teacher and he is testing you to see, quite literally, what you are made of.

Ten months ago I became a father. It’s a wonderful adventure and it also brings up a mess of previously unknown anxieties and responsibilities. Am I making healthy choices for my daughter? Am I raising her right? Am I providing enough for my family – now and for the future? How do I balance time with her against other responsibilities? Am I pulling my weight alongside my wife in terms of child care.
At the end of the day, however, I know that none of these questions are Jubilee’s questions. My daughter wants just one thing from me. She wants me to be her Daddy; one simple thing that I will spend the rest of my life being and becoming. The world is full of fully grown adults who still mourn their fathers’ relational absence, regardless of what their father may have achieved or done for them. But a father who loves and thoughtfully cares for his children can and will be forgiven many failings and shortcomings.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus. I’m still trying to figure that out, and much of it seems to be discovering all the things that I have backwards. I wasted a lot of time thinking that God wanted me to become someone else before I found out that he wants me to become myself. And lately I’m learning that even this is only part of it. We are indeed meant to become ourselves, but it is not for ourselves. We are here to be ourselves for our neighbours and for our maker.

Not to do, to act, or even to dream, but to be.