Coming to Terms with the Fact That You’re No Longer a Tough Guy
Or worse, maybe you never were
I have some good news and some bad news. The good news, for what I’m assuming is a non-zero number of people out there: If you’ve ever wanted to kick my ass, now would be the absolute perfect time to do it. The bad news, for me, is, well, the same thing: Owing to injury, I’m the least tough I’ve ever been in my 40 years on Earth, and it’s probably only going to get worse every year from here on out. If life were a video game, I’d be a mini-boss glowing red and wobbling back and forth waiting for the coup de grâce. Knock me into the lava pit with a slow motion uppercut. I’m done.
Or maybe just walk up to me and push me over with moderate effort.
That realization, The Delusional Hero’s Epiphany, is something that comes for most of us eventually. The age at which it arrives, or the circumstances that lead up to it will vary, but at some point it will come. One day you’re the reluctant pacifist warrior, not necessarily looking for violence, but prepared for it nonetheless. The next day you’re… not. If we can be reductive here for a second, think of it as the stereotypical masculine equivalent of the Last Fuckable Day, Amy Schumer’s bit about the day when a middle-aged woman realizes she’s no longer desirable.
To be sure, there are actual hard-asses out there — trained martial artists, hulking dudes hardened by years of fighting or weathered old salts with miles of donnybrooks on their leathery fists. Maybe that’s you! (If you’re reading this, it’s not.) Much rarer, almost nonexistent, however, is the Manchurian badass, whose unlocked latent fighting prowess is waiting to be triggered at just the right moment.
There’s a popular meme that’s been passed around a lot lately. It shows a woman laying in bed next to her boyfriend, and it typically goes something like this: Her: “I bet he’s thinking about others girls” followed by a punchline of the dude actually thinking about some convoluted video game or nerd fandom minutiae. A more accurate depiction of what’s going on in most guy’s minds at any given time isn’t a fantasy about women, it’s a fantasy about themselves clearing a room full of bad guys, Jason Bourne-like. In reality, though, most of us are more like Mac from Always Sunny, constantly scanning the room, handing out ocular pat-downs, and no less absurd and pitiful.
Sadly, for some of us, even if, or especially if, we’re a nominally powerful, but nonetheless elderly man, say the president, or the former vice president, the impulse to project this type of thinking never goes away.
It’s a disease, this behavior. Whether it’s a matter of our innate propensity for violence as a species or more related to cultural socialization is a matter of much debate among researchers, but as is the case with most nature-versus-nurture discussions, it’s likely a little of column A and a little of column B. Girls aren’t immune from socialized aggression, but that more often takes the form of ostracizing or insulting other girls. Boys, on the other hand, take out their differences through violence. It shouldn’t be surprising when boys are taught from such a young age to behave aggressively, whether through sports or violent hobbies like hunting and fighting, and girls are taught to be more passive and nurturing.
What is indisputable, however, is that men are by far the overwhelming perpetrators of violent crimes, largely against other men, and young men, age 15 to 29 are far more likely to be the victim of homicides. (Men are also more likely to be the aggressors toward women as well.)
That poison sticks around in our brains for a long time. Look no further than our 71-year-old porcine president boasting that he would’ve somersaulted into an active-shooter situation and taken the assailant’s gun away from him after the Parkland shooting for evidence of how persistent this masculine mind rot can be. But if you ask people who’ve actually been in combat, despite what we tell ourselves, the ability to act like a “hero” — whether it’s in an actual war or simply a bar fight — is something you either have or do not. Or something you had one day, and then did not the next.
That could be because of age, injury or having witnessed enough violence to know that it’s something you don’t want to be a part of anymore, as the dozen or so dudes I asked about this explained. Maybe you knew it from Day One, being particularly small or gentle in nature. A lot of times it comes from the grim reality that sets in once you receive actionable data on your relative toughness that torpedoes your illusions about yourself. “One time I got my ass kicked by three dudes after doing Wing Chun kung fu for about two months,” Ed Zitron, the founder and CEO of the media relations and PR agency EZPR, tells me. “I had this insanely overinflated sense of strength, and the only ‘move’ I made was to elbow one in the face really hard because he touched my face, which freaked me out.”
“It fucked me up for years,” he continues. “I couldn’t walk back to my house for awhile.”
“I think a lot of the reason that men think they’re invincible when they’re younger is a sense of youthful narcissism,” says one guy, who asks not to include his name. “‘Nobody else has ever been as special and tough as me!’”
When our unnamed guy was 29, he lost his brother in a car accident, which planted the seed of mortality in his mind, but it wasn’t until a couple of years later when he got his ass kicked in a bar fight that he fully realized his positioning as the unique protagonist of reality was false. “The idea for me is that my belief in my invincibility was centered on my idea that I was strong, unique, special and able to handle myself even as I was getting older. Learning that I wasn’t special and getting my ass kicked equaled figuring out that I was aging just like everyone else.”
Yoni Gordon also learned a lesson about his stature in life when he got beat up. Coincidentally, he also lost his brother in a car crash when he was a teenager. “I went into shock in a number of ways, one of which being that I became really reckless,” he says. “My thinking was, ‘I survived this horrible thing, I probably can survive any horrible thing.’”
He commenced a pattern of self-destructive behavior, getting wasted and confronting the biggest guy in any bar in non-violent, but nonetheless aggressive, ways. It culminated years ago when he wandered into a house party thrown by people he didn’t know, walked directly to the fridge, grabbed as many beers as he could and then calmly walked out. A few minutes later, he was getting pummeled in an alley, his head smashed into the pavement. While he says he never considered himself a tough guy before, that sort of thing has a way of tempering the way one carries oneself.
“I’ve done a tremendous amount of damage in my life because of all of [my reckless behavior], and at a certain point, I realized that the life that’s best for me, and best for my son, is one where I value sanity and stability. I’m still the same hot head, but I keep that in line.”
Jim McDonough had that epiphany after years of driving around with road rage and thinking he was tougher than he actually was. He was driving in Dorchester, when someone slow-walked him in front of his car. He honked aggressively, and a tall guy threw a full red cup of alcohol at his windshield, probably a bad harbinger of things to come already. “I lost it,” McDonough says. “I threw it in park and jumped out of the car without thinking. I charged toward him, and before I could get too close, he was bobbing and weaving like he was a pro boxer. I immediately regretted it.”
To say the least, the fight didn’t go his way. “I was truly embarrassed and horrified when I got in my car. I looked in the mirror and realized my face was already banged up. I got to my condo, and I was almost in tears to my wife. I was so horrified I did this. For many reasons. I had — and have — a good career in sales, and my annual sales meeting was coming up. I couldn’t imagine telling people I was in a fight. I was also just so scared I could’ve died. And finally, I realized I’m not that tough.”
“It was an epiphany,” he continues. “I’m the type who in my analytical brain I think is pretty strong, but my monkey brain in the moment can be suspect. So the big thing is I simply try not to engage when people are aggressive on the road. It’s hard, but the stakes are so high for me. Not only do I have a career, I have an 8- and 6-year-old now. So I have to cut that shit out. That said, there’s that part of me that still sizes people up when they come at me. It really bothers me, because I’m so anti-violence in every sense.”
Not everyone feels the same. Despite knowing that they’re probably wrong, a few of my friends tell me they just can’t shake a confidence in their fighting abilities. “Even though I know it’s crazy and stupid, I’m still crazy and stupid enough to think I can jump into altercations in the right circumstances,” Kevin Grant says.
“I haven’t been in a fight since the fifth grade, but I’m still 100 percent sure I could throw down against most dudes if absolutely necessary,” Chris Merriam adds. “I’m probably wrong about that.”
“I’ll let you know when I get there,” Nick Freitas offers.
Freitas, unlike a lot of guys, has a respectable résumé when it comes to being able to handle himself in altercations, after years of working as a bouncer. But most of the guys he deals with are still under operating under false pretenses when it comes to their ass-kicking bonafides. “Most fights aren’t very skillful,” he explains. “The deciding factor is usually who remains calm. In general, most guys who really know how to fight try not to because they have nothing to prove. Most fights start over ego or perceived disrespect. Alcohol is definitely a big factor in a lot of cases.”
In other words, when our inhibitions are down, or our anger is clouding our better judgment, we lose the ability to distinguish between who we really are if we’re being honest, and the jump-kicking superhero we fantasize we could be given the chance.
That’s what happened to another friend, who asks not to be named, but with a different outcome. His realization that he isn’t interested or capable of being a tough guy anymore wasn’t when he got his ass kicked, but when he was the one doing the ass-kicking. He broke a guy’s nose in a stupid bar fight, and he got sued afterward, having to spend around $10,000 in legal fees. “There was a lengthy court battle, legal fees. I barely got away with not having a record. It was a hard lesson for me.” Now, he says, he tries to resolve any potential conflict peacefully. And if he can’t, he walks away.
Colin Campbell, a large and actual tough guy, realized how gross the feeling of intimidating people was after years of doing it unconsciously and otherwise. “It took me seeing guys who were much older than me being one dimensionally tough,” he explains. “They wanted people to be sketched out when they came into the room. I was at an after-hours hopped up on goofballs, and an older guy showed up and his shadow immediately cast over the room. I thought: You’re all afraid of this guy; he’s gotta be 50. He was a guy who had been living off reputation for over a decade. I knew I didn’t want to be like that. I want laughs and love when I come in the room. I wanted to be adored. I knew I had to change my approach on this.”
Not long after, he ended up doing a stint in jail for a few months, and it changed his perspective on what it means to be a tough guy. “In jail, almost no one operates on intimidation. Everyone has equal respect, because no one wants loss of privilege, being sent to the hole or more time added to their stint. It taught me a lot about how to interact with respect for others. Sometimes the beast in me will still come out, but it’s few and far between. Almost nothing is worth sitting in a cage for.”
Especially if you’re probably going to lose, which is where I find myself lately. I was certainly never some shit-kicker, but I had evidence enough to know I would be able to handle myself, as they say, if need be. It’s been years since I’ve had to actually throw fists, but in numerous occasions when violence has broken out around me since then — a baseball bat pulled on me in an argument, or menacing behavior on the street — I’ve always been able to remain calm enough to diffuse the situation, or to be ready to handle it, successfully or otherwise, knowing that even if I got my ass kicked, it wouldn’t exactly be a good time for the other guy.
But those days are over. I’d wilt under the slightest provocation today. It’s just not worth it to me thinking about having to go through months of physical therapy healing from wounds given to me — or that I gave to myself — from getting in a fight.
I ask my dad what he thinks about hanging up the youthful foolishness of competition and violence the other day. He tells me a story about trying to play volleyball with my friends and I when we were in college and realizing he just couldn’t make his body move toward the ball, or jump, the way his mind thought it should be able to.
“It was like my legs felt like lead. You guys were flying over the place. My mind would say get it, but I couldn’t reach the ball. I just realized I’m over-the-hill. I still thought I could compete with you guys, but obviously I couldn’t.”
What about fighting though, I ask in return? Does he still think he could kick ass if need be?
“Oh yes,” he responds. “That only comes with adrenaline and temper. Some of these young guys the same size as me? I don’t think so. They’re quicker and faster and stronger. Someone my age though? I could probably beat them up.”
I just hope, for all of our sakes, we never get to find out.
Luke O’Neil is a writer-at-large for Esquire and a freelancer at various other outlets. He last wrote about the insane things we do to avoid ambulance bills.
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