I recently had the chance to spend the evening sipping pints of beer with an old friend of mine. Perhaps we sipped too many, but it happens. Right? Anyway, the subject of my friend's youth came up, and suffice it to say, my friend grew up in a not-so-passive environment in a big city. He had to fight, a lot, and lives now with the demons associated with past fears and violence. Too many times he had to defend himself—admittedly because he often put himself in bad situations—and he became, well, experienced at it. The cliche is this: he seems like he wouldn't hurt a fly. But he would, if he had to. And he has. So never be deceived by appearances or preconceived notions.
My friend was bullied and beaten up many times when he was young. It is tragic, really. He says the violence he encountered was “life changing” and “horrible,” and that eventually he hit that point. The point where he knew he had to become “tough.”
It is truly a burden he has to live with now. Even though he hurt people who wanted to hurt him, he speaks of it as if he should do some sort of penance for his actions. Yet, his stories hold value to anyone who wants to avoid violence or survive it if the time comes. He knows what it is really like. And it sucks.
Once, for example, I naively asked him what his reaction would be if someone grabbed him and he was about to be punched. It's a drill martial artists do repeatedly.
“If someone grabs you,” he said bluntly, “they don't know what they're doing.”
That's not to say you'll never be grabbed. A lot of people might do so. He was just suggesting that there are many people who might sucker you without so much as a tell. “You have to read people and react accordingly,” he added.
Awareness, my sensei used to say, is ninety percent of self-defense.
But all said, and despite lessons learned, I feel terrible for him. He lives with demons. He knows how ugly true violence is—but almost like a soldier—he became adept at it. It will never, ever leave him.
And that is the biggest lesson of all.