Friday, July 12, 2013

A Bit of the Old Ultra Violence: Why We Aren't the Cavemen We Claim to Be

Eat like a cave man. Lift like a neanderthal. It seems like every fucking morning I wake up and see some new, stupid fitness platitude about getting in touch with our inner, primal selves. Well, ladies and jerks, I got news for you. You're not the cave man you think you are.

Not even close.

You want to know why? Simple, really. Cavemen hunted and killed. They bled things with their hands, felt the dying breaths of a bested prey as the light left its eyes. Violence was a part of their routine; violence was a defining and necessary characteristic of their lives. If you had a talent for violence, you stayed fed and defended. If you didn't? Well then you, my friend, became paleo-flavored prehistoric kibble.

Yea, I know. I'm coming off a little harsh but it's the f*cking truth people. I don't mean to deride you or rob you of your newfound confidence gained through your paleo-crossfit-spartan-toughmudder lifestyle. You should be proud of what you've done. You deserve credit for doing what many can't or simply won't. That is not the subject of this post, it's something quite simple.

I want to talk about violence.

I've always found our relationship with violence as humans to be intriguing. We are clearly enraptured by it. There's boxing, the UFC, even hockey and the NFL. Sure, they're sports, but we all know that if you took the violence out of them they would hardly hold our attention the way they currently do. Beyond that we have the american obsession with action films; shelling out millions of dollars a year to watch artificially muscled hollywood heroes kicking the f*ck out of whatever supremely contrived villain that particular film has to offer. There's also slasher flicks and the horror/ gore porn genre that demonstrates what many would consider a troubling fascination with extreme, in-your-face bloody drenched brutality; and that's just scraping the surface. It does not even approach the subject of Spartan Race, Warrior Dash or any other number of adventure races and events that cast us in the role of warrior hero in our very own personal narrative.

Last time I checked obstacles don't hit back and there's no combat component to an endurance event. What confuses me about all of this is the lack of the essential substance of what it means to be a f*cking warrior: the necessary mastery of violence. That's where it all starts to come apart.

What's your relationship with violence? If you are like the majority of other members of modern society the simple answer is: well, you don't have one. Violence is something that happens in movies and on television, it's something reported about by video journalists that occurs on the other side of the planet. If you are like most people, violence in it's purest and most primal form, terrifies you.

It's not your fault. Violence is no longer a necessary part of our society; of our day to day lives. A talent for violence does not serve much of a purpose unless you're a professional fighter or professional miscreant. Soldiers have a very personal relationship with violence but the majority of them are not proud of it. It is not a badge of honor they wear around their necks, boasting to all those they know of their martial prowess and the facility with which they can physically damage another human being.

So, what exactly is our fascination with warrior culture? Well, I have something of a theory.

You guys remember when the 300 came out a few years back, right? The movie (based on a Frank Miller comic book) showcases the ferocious physical superiority and aesthetic perfection of a particular city in ancient greece. The film casts them as tragic heroes, a society to be celebrated based on their strength and the inspirational gravitas of their king, Leonidas.

Well, that's all well and good, but apparently no one checked the history books.

The Battle of Thermopylae was not fought between 300 Spartans and a million Persians. It was fought by a combined force of roughly 7,000 Greeks and an estimated 100,000-150,000 Persians. Also, Spartans may have been respected for their martial prowess, but a lot of their military superiority was due to the fact that they had better weapons (bronze spears and shields) and used a tactic no one else was using (the phalanx). Oh, and let's not even mention the fact that they were generally considered arrogant and barbaric and that they were a eugenic society (you know, eugenics, the idea made most famous by fuggin' Hitler). Granted, citing the historical inaccuracies of a movie containing monsters and magic is a dubious proposal at best, it highlights the main point of this post: we are in love with the IMAGE and apparently could not care less about the substance. Weird, right?

Enter the era of the hero workout.

They come in different forms. There's CrossFit, which is a hero workout and then some. There's the Spartan WODs and Bootcamps every gym seems to offer these days. There's MMA conditioning classes where you do the exercises without fear of getting kicked in the head and cardio kickboxing where you get to throw punches to the snappy tune of Rihanna's latest techno infused heartbreak anthem.

Now, to be fair, the American odyssey into the fitness world and the drive to look like an action hero can be drawn as far back as Schwarzenegger or Stallone but fitness was a fringe culture those days. It mostly revolved around either bodybuilding or aerobics. It wasn't like it is today. Now fitness is cool; it's trendy. These classes are literally everywhere and popping up with greater frequency every day. People FLOCK to them and oftentimes for good reason. I'm all for working hard and getting out of your comfort zone. If you need someone yelling in your face to get you to do it then have at it, by all means.

Just don't think it makes you a warrior. The reality is quite the opposite. You know why we are all so fascinated by these workouts? Because we're soft. We've lost our edge. It's not your fault you were born into a world that doesn't require you to fight for your life or your honor. There's nothing you could do to change the fact that your food is bought rather than killed. The truth is that compared to our paleolithic ancestors us first-worlders live in a veritable paradise where everything is within our grasp. The hard part of us, the warrior spirit that lives within every person was put under wraps and placed in a closet. It was allowed to rust and dull. Eventually it became nothing more than a trinket, a vestigial aspect of something we used to be.

We're a soft society. We don't teach children to stand up for themselves, we teach them to seek protection from an adult, to seek strength elsewhere. Children aren't allowed to have schoolyard tussles anymore. They're not even allowed to play dodgeball for f*cks sake. My heart genuinely goes out to every child who's ever been the target of bullying because it is painful and lonely and scary as hell. Your school, the place that is meant to be a safe haven, somewhere you go to become better and stronger becomes an ever looming threat. Sometimes the threat becomes so big theres no way to escape it other than to make everything just...go away. I feel for these kids and bullying makes my blood boil, but teaching children to run the f*ck away is not the answer.

I was bullied as a child. Severely. I was abused both physically and verbally for the majority of my upbringing. My mother still tells me that there were days where I would come home from school crying. I don't remember them because my mind decided I'm better off without those memories. There is something I do remember, though. The bullies, some of them who claimed to be my "friends." You know how they were allowed to do what they did? Why they were capable of their four foot nothing reigns of terror? Simple, really. They understood the power of violence and everyone's fear of it. The answer to bullying is not simply to teach children to beat the sh*t out of their nemeses. It is to foster the attitude and the atmosphere that that behavior is not acceptable amongst the entire peer group. A single person can not end the bullying epidemic but a majority paradigm shift from being afraid of the violence and abuse bullies represent to a willingness to confront it head on would be a good place to start; yet even this simple concept is incredibly difficult because we engender a strong fear of violence in our children almost from the moment they're born. As they grow we repeatedly reinforce the ideal that violence is bad and should be avoided at all costs.

Tell me something, why? Why is that positive?

I've noticed an interesting cultural reaction to several major news pieces lately, particularly one concerning the Zimmerman/Martin trial. My understanding is that Martin was shot basically because he may have physically attacked Zimmerman. It is not my understanding that any genuine threat to Zimmerman's life was presented, yet a vast number of people are claiming that Zimmerman acted "in self defense."

Really? Is that what it was? Because to me it looks like a grown ass man pulling the trigger out of some combination of fear and wounded pride. The reality is that I wasn't there. I don't know what happened. Maybe Zimmerman genuinely believed a threat to his life existed. Maybe his response was reasonable. Seems to me the evidence hardly substantiates that version of the story.

Self defense is meant to be just that. You defend yourself in a reasonable manner without escalating the situation. Self defense in a bar room brawl means preventing harm to yourself and those you care about without escalating the conflict to something larger. I don't think anyone would disagree that if you get into a drunken argument and punch someone and their response is to shoot you, they probably over reacted. Does that justify your throwing the punch in the first place? No, but simply starting a fight should never give someone legal justification to end your life.

We're so far away from our understanding and experience of violence that we convince ourselves this is a justifiable course of action. We're all so afraid that when we witness someone doing something out of fear we empathize. We're willing to give the guilty party a pass because an admission of their faults would be an admission of our own as well.

Fear and insecurity are the roots of most evils in this world. We fear what we don't know and we're made insecure over our lack of knowledge. Is it positive that we live in a society where it's not acceptable to simply deck someone because you don't like the way they looked at you? Absolutely. Is it also positive that we live in a society where we're protected by simple straightforward threats of violence but have apparently no recourse against corporate greed and the complexities of the banking industry? I realize this is a tenuous connection and a bit of a reach but my point is this: We tell ourselves violence is "uncivilized," and "barbaric," yet from where I stand violence is simple and honest. You know who your attacker is, you can see their face. What's more barbaric, being punched in the face by a drunk or having your entire life savings spirited away by a clever banker with a sly tongue and and a quick smile? I know what most of us would say because violence arouses within us a primal fear that bankruptcy does not. Short term intense pain seems worse than a slow, emotionally painful withering away of our livelihood.

It's all part of the same lie we tell ourselves. We run races and believe it makes us tough. We eat flesh and roughage and claim it makes us primal. Let me ask you something. Do you think a Spartan would give a flying f*ck about how quickly you can do 100 burpees? Do you think they would be impressed by your ability to climb an obstacle course or crawl under barbed wire so that you can finally cross that finish line and drink your victory beer?

Do you?

My very first love of fitness came through martial arts when I was still a kid, Kung-fu, actually. I had to beg my mother for a year before she would let me take any martial arts class. She was scared it was going to make me violent. I guess I don't blame her. I wanted to take the class because I was getting my ass kicked at school. To be honest, the nerdy part of me wanted it too because all of the comics I was reading shared a simple similarity in addition to the brightly colored spandex: all super heroes are incredibly talented at violence. Sure, they are doing it in the name of the good and the innocent but Batman spent most of his formative years learning how to be a ninja; very simply mastering the art of ending a life. Obviously I don't recommend murder as a training methodology but this highlights a central tenet of Becoming Invincible. You can't be invincible if you can't even fight back.

Human beings are obligate movers and obligate eaters. My intention is not to undercut the current trend towards re-mastering our primal selves as I genuinely believe it to be a phenomenal shift in our society's values. I would simply remind everyone that in addition to moving and eating, human beings are most definitely obligatorily violent as well. It is not only my belief that we should all be capable of performing basic maintenance on the beautiful and complex machine that is our body; but that we should also be capable of putting it to use in times of disaster or strife. Some day something bad may happen. It might be a zombie apocalypse or it might simply be someone who wants to hurt you and your loved ones because they can. Now ask yourself, really ask yourself, what would you do in this situation? Could you fight back? Could you defend yourself and the people you care about?

There's a warrior within all of us, an indomitable spirit that provides a bottomless pit of strength, courage and ferocity. Perhaps it's time we all become better acquainted with it, even if it takes slightly more than running an obstacle course.

Good luck and good lifting. Cheers.

Afterword: Look, guys, I want to be very clear about something. I realize that a large part of why people do adventure races is for the sake of personal accomplishment, achieving a goal they never thought possible or just simply for fun. That's all great stuff, really. There is no part of what I am saying that is intended to take away from your accomplishments if you're one of these people. As I said before you should be proud of the strides you've made in your personal journey. This article was meant to be a meditation on violence and modern society's relationship with it. Nothing more, nothing less. Please try to see it for what it is.

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