Sword Camp 2008 reminded me how much I enjoy fighting. I’m not speaking abstractly, here; by “fighting” I mean physical hand-to-hand combat.
Now, on one level, this revelation shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who knows what I do for fun. I’ve trained to black belt level in tae kwon do, studied aikido and wing chun kung fu, fought battle-line in the SCA, and achieved considerable proficiency in Sicilian cut-and-thrust swordfighting. One doesn’t do all that unless there’s some pretty hefty primary reward in there.
But I’ve actually had quite an interior struggle with this. It used to bother me that I like fighting. I had internalized the idea that while combat may sometimes be an ethical necessity, enjoying it is wrong — or at least dubious.
So I half-hid my delight from myself behind a screen of words about seeking self-perfection and focus and meditation in motion. Those words were all true; I do value the quasi-mystical aspects of the fighting arts very much. But the visceral reality underneath them, for me, was the joy of battle.
In 2005 I finally came to understand why I enjoy fighting. And — I know this will sound corny — I’m much more at peace with myself now. I’m writing this explanation because I think I am not alone — I don’t think my confusion and struggle was unique. There may be lessons here for others as well as myself, and even an insight into evolutionary biology.
I can talk about my joy in battle now without shame because of two very wise women; my grandmotherly friend Paula and her daughter Beth who’s about half my age. My wife Cathy and I are old friends of their whole family of six; we watched their kids grow up and maybe helped a little.
In mid-2005 we were hanging out with them and I started to think out loud about this liking-to-fight thing. Paula is a psychologist by training and thus Beth was raised by one; they both asked intelligent questions.
We disposed of some red herrings first. I don’t like hurting people; in fact I dislike that pretty strongly. I don’t like pain, either, though it’s fair to say I don’t mind it much when I’m in combat mode. And while I like winning, the thrill of victory is not what I’m trying to describe here.
What Paula and Beth pulled out of me is that I like the way I feel when I fight. Sharp, focused, totally in the moment. The best is when is when time slows and stretches, pulls like taffy, and my senses become razor-sharp. It’s a high, almost as good as sex.
Beth, who I shouldn’t think of as a preternaturally wise child these days but still sometimes do because she’s retained that kind of delighted innocence into adulthood, then said: “It’s obvious! You’re an adrenalin junkie!” Paula’s smile of agreement and pride in her daughter’s perceptiveness was eloquent. And my whole world lurched sideways for a moment as I realized that Beth was right.
Because, once I realized that I’ve been fighting in order to self-induce a particular kind of pleasurable hormonal rush, I no longer had to fear that in some dark hidden corner of my brain, I really wanted to hurt or break or dominate people. I could have my joy of battle without guilt.
I’m going to go into some more personal history now. Bear with me, because it’s aimed at bringing out a larger point about liking to fight that I think is applicable to many besides myself.
In the fall of 2005, not long after Beth had her insight, I went for a week of intensive training at a swordfighting school. And I had a blast. I learned well, I fought well, and I made friends I’ll have for the rest of my life. I was forty-seven, but I powered through the course in a style that earned plaudits from the instructors and drew frank envy from some of the twentysomethings who were most of my fellow students.
I think some of what was powering me through that week, at least psychologically, was the huge sense of relief I was still feeling from the realization that, truly, enjoying a fight doesn’t make me a bad person.
But Sword Camp 2005 was not a fluke. I’m publishing this essay now because I’m just back from Sword Camp 2008. I’m 50 this year, and yet on one night I scored consecutive victories against six trained fighters, including two of the school’s top five most skilled and four other athletic young men and women averaging about half my age. And was reminded, in a way I seldom am because my lifestyle doesn’t involve a lot of physical exertion, of how exceptionally strong I actually am (this will become relevant in a bit).
Now I have to make a brief detour to explain the concept of a “compensation monster”. You’ve probably heard or read somewhere that Napoleon conquered Europe because he couldn’t stand being short. Whether or not that’s true, it’s the archetypal story of the compensation monster — the man or woman who overachieves in order to overcome deep-seated feelings of inadequacy tied to a physical handicap.
Before 2005, to the extent I allowed myself to think about my love of combat at all, I put it down to being a compensation monster. On that theory, all this fighter stuff was just me trying to get past the fact that I have a gimp left leg, reacting against feelings of deep-seated physical inadequacy and yadda yadda yadda; you can fill in the rest yourself.
But after Beth enlightened me about my adrenaline-junkieness, I decided this theory just couldn’t fly alone any more. I had to start casting about for a better explanation.
Now, it’s not that I have a problem with being a compensation monster. I absolutely am one and I know it full well; but I also know how I compensated as a child and young man, and it was by developing my brain. You can explain me becoming a famous übergeek that way; I’ll nod and agree and only ask you to notice that sometimes compensation actually works — you actually can get shut of feelings of inadequacy by overachieving.
The trouble with the compensation-monster theory is that it doesn’t explain my body. Beth’s observation sort of kicked me into noticing some facts about my physiology that assembled into an interesting pattern. Here are some of them:
- I’m an adrenalin junkie.
- I have both more muscle than most people and muscles of above-average efficiency (more oomph per cubic inch than most people). As a consequence, I am exceptionally strong.
- My glandular response to intimidation is not to be afraid but to get angry. And it is reported by several friends that I’m pretty scary when I get angry, though I’ve never actually gone off on anyone as an adult.
- I don’t lose a lot of muscle tone even when I’m sedentary for a long time, and I re-condition very fast when I take exercise.
- I have a high pain tolerance. (This is the explicit evaluation of my swordmaster, who is former military from an elite branch and has high standards for toughness.)
- I get steadier under real survival pressure. I can be as wobbly as anyone else in trivial crises — but if there’s a fire in the building or someone’s been badly injured, I’m likely to be the one who gets totally cold and clear and takes charge (and I’m not speculating, I’m remembering actual incidents). It’s like above a certain threat level a reflex kicks in, some sort of anti-panic clampdown.
- I don’t experience physical fear very strongly even in many situations where rationally speaking I probably should. In particular, I have little or no fear of hand-to-hand combat.
On those last two points: I am not saying I’m brave about fighting or in clutch situations, because that’s having fear and mastering it. I know what ‘brave’ feels like; I hate needles and I have to do ‘brave’ whenever I get an injection. It takes effort, and I feel virtuous when I manage it. I also know what overwhelming fear feels like; heights and drop-offs do that to me.
But my reaction to combat and survival-threat situations is not bravery, doesn’t require effort, and doesn’t feel like virtue; in fact, I can’t make it happen at all. It’s like a switch flips and the lizard-brain takes over. In particular, I simply don’t fear hand-to-hand, not even in situations my forebrain tells me are potentially dangerous. Instead, I groove on it. I feel joy. Even when I get hit, the pain registers as a sort of a mechanical signal without frightening me.
I think I’m experiencing the same fight-or-flight reaction as other people do in combat situations, but something in my wiring turns what would otherwise be subjectively experienced as fear into a kind of bliss.
The conclusion seems inescapable. Compensation monstrosity may be part of what made me a fighter, but it isn’t all or even most of the story. Beth kicked me into realizing that my physiology and my glands seem to be designed to make me like to fight and be good at it. I’m now pretty sure, as I wasn’t before, that I would have invested heavily in martial arts even had I not had palsy.
And I’d have been much better at them, too, because with normally-developed legs I’d (a) be about 6’2″ rather than 5’7″ (judging by my torso length and how tall my brothers are), and (b) I’d have normal (or maybe above-normal) mobility.
I think I make an especially interesting outlier because (a) I didn’t start serious training until I was 30, long after the adolescent/postadolescent phase when men are most aggressive and focused on physical achievement; and (b) I’m a geek, fer cripes’ sake. It didn’t fit anybody’s expectations, least of all mine, that I’d have a revelation about warrior bliss in the middle of my middle age.
OK, now we’re done with the personal history. The point of it was to establish how I learned, by experiencing it in myself, that some men seem to be strongly physiologically wired for physical combat. Now I’m going to consider some larger implications.
If the seven traits I mentioned are independent, it seems pretty long odds against me hitting the jackpot on all of them. No; I have to think there’s a single DNA trait cluster behind all or most of them that got hammered into shape under adaptive pressure in the Paleolithic and has been doing its best to shape some percentage of men into natural hand-to-hand fighters ever since.
Clearly it isn’t all men. If that were so, the combination of those traits would not be exceptional. I think I understand why it isn’t; from an individual point of view the joy-of-battle reaction is probably counter-survival. On the other hand, having some men with warrior wiring was probably a big help for the survival of the hominid bands they were part of. Somebody had to shove that flaming branch in the sabertooth’s face when it came prowling for a baby-human snack, after all, and it would be adaptive for a man’s kin group (if not for himself) if he were enough of a combat junkie to glory in it.
On the other hand, we should expect warrior wiring to be nearly nonexistent in females, or present only as a spandrel for the same reasons men have nipples. In the ancestral environment the limited reproductive capacity of women was just too precious to risk. And all the males having it would have been an equally bad idea; there’s got to be somebody left after battle to inseminate the females, and better it should be many somebodies or you get problems with drift and inbreeding.
So, just thinking about the ancestral environment suggests that we should expect warrior wiring to remain present in a stable minority percentage of males even though it tends to interfere with individual reproductive success.
My more on-the-ball readers will notice that this model resembles the traditional kin-selection theory of why homosexuality never got bred out of humans. These days I’m friendly to the gay germ theory, and there’s a newer theory that connects gayness to higher rates of reproduction in female relatives, but the traditional theory is interesting nevertheless. Basically, it’s that gays are sufficiently valuable to their close relatives as noncompetitive nurturers that the effect of their much lower reproductive rate still nets out to a positive for their genetic lines.
If gayness is after all genetic, it might be worth investigating whether it’s mutually correlated with warrior physiology. This seems like a silly idea to moderns who are used to thinking of gay men as limp-wristed pansies, and I’m thoroughly heterosexual myself. But many martial cultures — ancient Greeks, pre-Meiji Japanese, and Afghanis are examples — have had traditions of homoeroticism in their warrior classes.
More generally, I think it would be extremely interesting to do a large-population measurement study on the traits I’ve described above with a view to discovering whether they are cross-correlated and heritable. I suspect we might find there is some analogue of Spearman’s g that captures most of the variance in these traits even if we can’t yet identify what the underlying mechanism is.
UPDATE: It may be significant that at least two of my direct-line ancestors were military officers who fell in battle. One was a Union cavalry lieutenant who died at Gettysburg in 1863; I’m told his name is on the monument, though I haven’t been there to check. Fifty years earlier his grandfather, an officer under Napoleon, had died leading his men in a charge against the walls of Moscow.