“There is only one success — to be able to spend your life in your own way.” — Christopher Morley
There’s this podcast out there that used to be called Quit. It’s run by Dan Benjamin, and for 50+ episodes he’s talked to his co-host Haddie Cook and guests about the subject of quitting their crummy, corporate-stooge jobs. Well, not quitting exactly, but that moment when one has had enough of their current situation. It’s often about the difficulties in reaching potential at work and life. Sometimes, it’s about celebrating the moment of moving on. Recently, Dan changed the name of the show to Grit, as it perhaps better describes what he’s trying to do. I like the name change, because Grit is a character trait that isn’t talked about enough. Grit is the trait This American Life attributed to personal and professional success in life. Grit is that thing heroes have.
I want to talk about how I feel about my favorite pro wrestler of the modern era, CM Punk, since he quit his crummy, corporate-stooge job.
The great wrestling announcer and personality Gorilla Monsoon used to describe grit as “intestinal fortitude,” which is just about the chewiest way to put it I can think of. I’d like to think I’ve got a good bit of it. But the term “fortitude” works just as well as grit. I’ve struggled with depression, professional failures, and personal setbacks. These things define me by experience, and they don’t drag me down because I know I can get through it. I’ve always been able to find a new job. I’ve always been able to find a new way to get through the day. I can look back on history to find where I’ve had the guile and wit to overcome my own problems, as well as those set by others. And after 31 years of struggle in one way or another, I’m at a place in my life where I feel like I’ve won. And while I know better than to think that things ever get easier, I feel like I have a weapon on my back for whatever comes next. I’ve done this largely by relying on certain crutches that have helped fortify me. One of them is podcasting. The other is pro wrestling.
One of the things I’ve used as a way to puts terrible day behind me is with pro wrestling. Yeah, it’s stupid. I’ve been writing about it for nine years, and I know it’s stupid. Pro wrestling doesn’t fit in modern culture. It’s this weird fluke. But I get it. I’ve always gotten it. And while it’s gone in and out of vogue, it’s always been this thing that made me feel better. I don’t need to see a specific guy win or lose. I don’t need the stories to be strong, or the acting to be good. Wrestling is better when everyone cares, but it works just fine when it’s terrible. Sometimes terrible wrestling is what the doctor ordered. Sometimes you watch wrestling and think “If these fuckups can make it through this garbage, I can make it through my garbage.”
Wrestling was there when I got bullied and beat up at school. It was there when my parents divorced, and when girls would dump me, when I’d feel like shit for dumping them, when I couldn’t be bothered to go to school, and for everything else that’s happened since I finally graduated from university, good and bad. It’s not a coincidence: Wrestling is one of the few forms of entertainment that never shuts the valve. New wrestling is constantly happening. And because it’s all one big soap opera about a weird fucking job, you can jump in and out, catch up later, whatever. You can miss two years and get right back on, because the performers work the same way. Characters come and go, but they almost always come back.
I wrote an article called Left and Leaving in 2011 the week after CM Punk won the WWE Championship, blew a kiss to the owner of WWE, and ran off into the warm Chicago night. Three years later, there still hasn’t been a more crystalizing moment in professional wrestling. There have been moments of excellence and adulation, but none stopped time quite like that one. That was the night a great character finally won, and it’s taken me this long — and Punk’s actual exit — to figure out why it was so special. It has to do with the quote that opened the article, which is the same quote I used back in the original article. It was right there, staring me in the face. Did I mention I’m a total idiot fuckup? I pasted the quote myself and didn’t fully understand why.
In the original article, I commended Punk for pinpointing a prescient goal in the modern time: to simply go home, without the need to work for someone you don’t want to. There was something innocent and wonderful about a character’s goal to simply spend time on their couch, watch TV with their partner, hang out and just be a person. I still think that’s as good a goal as any, but that wasn’t Punk’s real intention. His character never wanted to just go home. His character wanted to not ever have to answer to anybody.
For those who weren’t there, here’s the story. After years of perceived misuse, CM Punk found his way into a fortuitous situation: a number one contender’s spot, with the match for the WWE Championship occurring the evening before his contract came up. What gave this story juice was that Punk didn’t seem to want anything. He declared he would win the title, then leave. He threatened to defend the title in other wrestling companies, but mainly inferred he’d simply take his ball and go home. Wrestlers have held the company up for ransom before, but it’s mostly been for power or gold. Punk held WWE up, but wanted nothing.
Punk was the villain in this story, but the crowd quickly came around to his line of thinking. His claim that John Cena, the incumbent champion, had become the New York Yankees of wrestling fortified the view that Punk was the change wrestling fans regularly desired. Wrestling journalists confirmed for savvy fans that Punk’s contract actually was coming up, and whether or not this was ever true, it added legitimacy to the narrative. Punk’s entrance to the match — taking place in his namesake city of Chicago — was electric. It’s still one of the best entrance reactions of all time. And the match holds up, three years later, as one brimming with intrigue, unique spots neither used again, and a finishing sequence so well done even veteran fans sat on the edge of their seats.
In the end, Punk defeated Cena. Vince McMahon stood at ringside, his plans to keep the title in WWE failed, and he stood helpless as Punk straddled the railing between the stage and the fans, blew a kiss at him, and left the arena, hopping into a car, and disappearing. It was a season finale-quality moment, almost too good for pro wrestling. In two weeks, Punk returned, but like the spiritual opposite of frosty the snowman, he seemed to say, “I will go away again someday.” His reasons were leaving were too strong, his reasons for returning too vague. I still don’t believe Punk “left” WWE during this period. His contract may have been up, but there’s simply no logic to the idea that WWE let him hold their championship without first finalizing a new deal. Nevertheless, enough people believed it for the story to stay strong, and Punk’s character fully realized.
When you watch wrestling on a regular basis, you see patterns. You see a cast of archetypes. Over time, their actions become somewhat predictable (though never more predictable than when trying to explain something surprising to people who could not care less). This predictability becomes comforting. This is the basis of soap, and shouldn’t surprise anyone. The viewing itself becomes habit, often left as an unconscious action. How often do you decide to stop watching a show you’ve been watching your whole life? Here’s the thing: you should watch wrestling if you get something out of it, but “I get something out of it” shouldn’t be the reason. It should be more. You should be able to communicate it. Defend it. And if you can’t defend it, even to yourself, you should consider doing something else with your time. Wrestling will not miss you. It loses fans every day.
CM Punk wrestled almost the entire 2014 Royal Rumble match. He was unceremoniously taken out of the match by Kane. Then, he disappeared. We heard that he’d quit. We didn’t believe it. For months, it became a guessing game. Then, it became just a stone cold fact, with an opinion from everyone about the why’s and how’s. But here’s the fact of the matter: CM Punk, a wrestler many of us had gotten very, very used to, finally did the thing he’d promised for years: go home. We should have seen it coming, but we didn’t believe him. He’s a wrestler, after all. Wrestler’s never really leave. Wrestlers with no financial or emotional incentive to return eventually do. And while we still don’t know what “really” happened, it almost doesn’t matter. CM Punk won. He gets to live his life his way. And I’m happy for him, even if it makes it a touch harder for me. CM Punk made my life a little easier, but it’s selfish of me (and frankly, everyone), to expect him to do anything more than whatever the hell he wants.
And while yes, there is a lesson here to appreciate people for what they do, and not take them for granted, the real lesson is to try not to depend on the lives of others to help yours out. I take things like wrestling and podcasts for granted. I expect them to show up. But if Dan Benjamin quit his entire network tomorrow, I should be strong enough to not need to find another crutch. It can suck (and it would), but he’s a person, like CM Punk is a person. Our crutches are people, too. CM Punk did what he had to succeed. Success is a subject continually studied on Quit. Why ever quit? It’s about potential, happiness, and a greater chance of actual happiness. It’s about getting more out of life. But as cool an idea as quitting is, grit is actually a better one to study. The grit is the thing. Study Punk’s grit, and you’ll actually get the lesson of his career. Study Dan’s grit, and you’ll actually get the point of all those podcasts. Study your own, and you’ll find what you need to spend your life in your way.