Friday, July 30, 2010


After our weekly sparring class, my friend paraphrased an idea from Marcus Aurelius:

When a gladiator has to fight another gladiator who is unpredictable and dangerous, he does not resent or hate this other gladiator. Instead, he thinks to himself, “Danger.” This isn’t a negative judgment of his character but simply a factual statement: in the arena, this person is a danger to me, and so I must be careful.

Actually I’m quite certain that the word my friend used in place of unpredictable and dangerous was spazzy. This might sound immature, but for martial artists, spazziness has a very particular meaning. A spazzy fighter is one who makes abrupt, clumsy movements. If you spar with a spaz, he is likely to injure you with something that was not a purposeful technique. Perhaps he will elbow you in the forehead as you lean in to throw a body shot, or kick you hard in the Achilles tendon as he attempts to sweep your foot.

So the way my friend paraphrased Marcus Aurelius was something like: When a gladiator fights a spaz, he should not be annoyed with the spazzy opponent, but simply think, “Danger,” and try to avoid getting hurt, without any further negative judgments.

In citing this idea, my friend was specifically thinking about his reaction to a specific incidence of spazziness in our class that day. The most instinctive reaction to a spaz for most people is annoyance and frustration: why does he keep doing that? Controlling these sorts of emotions—frustration, anger, annoyance, hostility—is one of the main principles of fighting, since they will distract a fighter from performing well.

Sparring is as much a lesson in controlling emotions as in learning to attack and defend successfully. One of my friends put it like this: “In soccer, you get angry when somebody fouls you. But if you are boxing, the person is supposed to be hitting you, so you can’t get upset with them.” Sparring would be a pretty miserable activity if you were to get upset every time someone hit you—you’d be angry and upset throughout all of your training, and would hate all your training partners.

Still, while I am usually quite content to be punched and kicked by graceful and clever fighters, I tend to think of spazzy sparring partners as my enemies. I don’t necessarily dislike them personally, but during the time I spend in the ring with them, they are likely to injure me and thus are my foes.

I took Aurelius’s hypothetical passage to mean that I should stop focusing on the antagonistic relationship between myself and the spaz, and instead direct my attention only to the immediate danger that he poses to me. When he does something that might injure me, I should not think, This guy is such an asshole, but rather, without emotion, Watch out for that move. It is sort of a love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin approach to sparring, except there is no hate for either the spaz or his spazzy moves: there is only the dispassionate assessment of the danger involved and how to avoid it.

This idea made a strong impression on me, and for months I searched in vain for the actual passage from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. When I asked my friend to help me find it, he could not remember ever having described it to me. You know, that passage about spazzy gladiators, I asked him? I don’t remember any passage like that about gladiators, he would tell me.

Still, even without the exact quote, I loved this idea, which seemed to me equally applicable to fighting and to the rest of life. I would think of specific friends or ex-boyfriends who were prone to hurt my feelings: Danger, I would think, as I calmly distanced myself. I would meet people whose lives seemed filled with excessive melodramatics: Danger, I would think, deftly sidestepping their overtures of friendship. It was nothing personal, not an expression of dislike or personal affront. It was just what I needed to do to keep myself safe.

Increasingly, I could apply this principle to almost anyone. That girl whose backpack kept bumping into me on the bus? Danger. That guy smoking a cigarette slightly upwind of me? Danger. That frustrating coworker? Danger. That ex-girlfriend of my ex-boyfriend? Danger and danger. I could write off almost anyone I didn’t want to deal with as a purveyor of danger, even if it was only the danger that they would annoy me. I could bob and weave my way through life, refusing to engage, positively or negatively, with anyone who would cause me the least bit of irritation or distress.

I began to suspect, eventually, that I was interpreting this passage incorrectly. And then, a few weeks ago, after every kind of digital and analog search through Meditations, I finally found the passage my friend had been referring to. One reason that it had been difficult to find was that Aurelius had not used the word gladiator; instead, he had referred to the circus, which could be a reference to other types of performative combat:

“If an antagonist in the circus tears our flesh with his nails, or tilts against us with his head, we do not cry out foul play, nor are we offended, nor do we suspect him afterwards as a dangerous person. Let us act thus in the other instances of life. When we receive a blow, let us think that we are but at a trial of skill and depart without malice or ill will.”
But besides this circus/gladiator disparity, the idea of the passage is a bit different than the interpretation I had been embracing. It says that we should not see our opponent as dangerous, that we should not be offended by the danger he affords us. Instead, we should see him as a helper, someone who is collaborating with us to make us better.

While this is similar to my interpretation, I was still viewing the “dangerous” person as a kind of enemy, at least during the time that we were engaged in an activity (whether sparring, a work meeting, a conversation). My refusal to fully engage with that enemy was indeed a sign of malice and ill-will, even though I thought it was not. It’s nothing personal, I would think, but viewing someone as a dangerous enemy to be deflected and avoided is certainly personal, just as it is personal when “Christians” tell gay people that their relationships are a sin, no matter how much they profess to still love the sinner.

In Psychotherapy East and West, Alan Watts argued that our binary language structures prevent us from seeing that even our real enemies, the ones who truly wish to hurt us, are also helping us: “An inadequate system of classification has made it too difficult to understand that there can be an enemy/friend and a war/collaboration.” Watts describes how a war between two “enemy” societies might in fact have positive benefits for both sides: keeping their populations in check, forcing them to hone their martial skills. Even as they consider their interests to be diametrically opposed, the two sides are collaborating in a single system, and their war is a kind of partnership.

While Watt’s example of war/collaboration makes logical sense, emotionally it is difficult to think of the brutal violence and death of war as something positive. Still, this mental exercise points out the relative ease of understanding people like the spazzes as my partners and collaborators. Certainly, they are making me better at sparring by forcing me to truly defend myself against whatever might come, whether that is a sanctioned kickboxing technique or an accidental headbutt. But also, they are strengthening my ability to cooperate in any situation, to not shut myself off to people who I find challenging, to compete with pure focus on my own performance rather than on the properness of their strategy. After all, my annoyance with them, no matter how detached, impersonal, or provisional, is a really just a way of causing myself discomfort and grief, sensations that could be completely avoided if I simply refused to get annoyed. While I might think my opponent is the dangerous one, my reaction to him is the true danger to myself.

The illustration depicts a black eye I received from an accidental headbutt.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


A woman gave my friend Tom the following advice:

You should never date the person whom you are most attracted to. If you go to a party and talk to a woman that you find incredibly attractive, don't pursue her. Skip past the woman you find second most attractive as well. The woman who comes in third--that's the woman you should date.

"It's ridiculous," Tom said to me. "It's saying that your appetites are fundamentally wrong. It's like saying, if you feel like eating broccoli, don't eat broccoli. Eat a food you feel more indifferent about, like, I dunno, cheese or cucumbers or something. No, I say if you want to eat broccoli, you should eat broccoli."

Like my childhood therapist, who had an eating disorder, Tom tends to use a lot of food analogies. Lately I’ve noticed myself using them more and more, too.

"But Tom," I said, "what if you crave ice cream? I think that's what she's getting at. Maybe the person who appeals most to your appetite is actually the worst thing for you."

Tom scoffed. "That's not an appetite--that's a sickness. If your appetite isn't sick, then you crave broccoli, not ice cream."

This point was easy for me to concede, because I never crave ice cream. I do crave cookies, especially chocolate chip with walnuts, or peanut-butter, or anything with fruit flavor like the lime sugar cookies that I ate four of when my coworker brought them to a meeting. Luckily we weren’t talking about cookies, however; we were talking about ice cream, which I could do without, frankly.

"But Tom," I persisted, "A lot of people have unhealthy appetites; I think that's what she was getting at. I mean, look at me." I thought of a guy I had recently dated; let's call him Mr. Confused. "I had such a strong appetite for Mr. Confused, and he was horrible for me."

"No, no, no," Tom said. "You were not wrong in your appetite for Mr. Confused. He's smart, and attractive, and interesting. Hell, I congratulate you for bagging that guy." Tom sounded pretty enthusiastic. "Just because he couldn't handle being with you doesn't mean that your appetite was wrong. Your appetite was dead-on."

At the time, I took great comfort in this. What a nice thought--my appetite wasn't wrong. Mr. Confused just couldn't return my feelings for a complex array of really dumb-ass reasons. The problem lay with him, not with me.

There seem to be two predominant ways of understanding appetite. One is an optimistic, or we might call it Lockean, viewpoint: our appetites are fundamentally good, and will steer us towards what is healthiest for us if we will only listen to them. This model is promoted in a book I read recently about raw food diets. One of the benefits of this diet, the book claimed, is that after a brief, unpleasant “detoxification” phase, during which the dieter might feel nauseated, dizzy, listless, etcetera, the dieter will begin to crave healthy, raw foods and will no longer crave junk food and desserts. Tom’s reasoning followed this same model. A healthy person will have a healthy appetite for healthy foods; an appetite for unhealthy foods is a symptom of illness, or perhaps an illness in itself.

The pessimistic, or Hobbesian, view of appetite is the one the woman at the party was expressing. In this view, appetites are fundamentally deceptive or misleading. Tom’s friend believes that if we find somebody extrememly appealing, it is a sign that the person is bad for us. This is like when we are too full to finish our dinner but still hungry for dessert; our appetites lead us towards what is unhealthy and unnecessary. The doctor on the advice show Loveline agrees with this philosophy, often counseling women who are drawn to “bad-boy” types that they must choose someone who appeals less to their appetite in order to find a healthy relationship.

Paul Cameron, founder of the anti-gay Family Research Council, takes the Hobbesian position regarding what he considers to be the danger of homosexuality: “If you isolate sexuality as something solely for one's own personal amusement, and all you want is the most satisfying orgasm you can get—and that is what homosexuality seems to be—then homosexuality seems too powerful to resist.” In contrast, he says that, “Marital sex tends toward the boring end. Generally, it doesn't deliver the kind of sheer sexual pleasure that homosexual sex does.” Sex with men is clearly what appeals most to Cameron’s appetite, yet he finds it morally superior to marry someone for whom he does not have much appetite at all, like people who force down their daily portion of vegetables for the sake of their health, even though the only things they want to eat are cheeseburgers and nachos.

The Lockean philosophy sounds more appealing and reasonable because it portrays human nature as innately tending towards good—given the right information and options, we will choose the one that is beneficial for us. But of course, public interest in food options like the KFC double down or Friendly’s grilled cheese burger melt might steer us towards the Hobbesian view that our appetites are inherently destructive and need guidance from a benevolent leader or perhaps dietitian.

Last week, I went to a workshop on sugar, led by a nutritional counselor I know. She asked us to write down our questions so she could answer them. Several people asked her about the sugars in fruits, a category of food which is both “healthy” (natural, unprocessed, full of vitamins) and easily appealing to many people’s appetites. Of course, the very feature that makes fruit appetizing is the one that might make it somewhat unhealthy, its high sugar content.

“How much fruit is it okay to eat?” one person asked. “Can I eat as much as I want?”

The counselor couldn’t give us a clear answer on this. Instead, to her credit, she asked us how our individual bodies responded when we ate fruit: “Does it ever give you that feeling of having a sugar rush and crash? Have you been gaining weight? If so, you might want to gradually cut back on the sugar you consume from fruit. Maybe try eating a sour apple like a granny smith, instead of a sweet apple like a fuji.”

I was happy to see that I wasn’t the only person who grimaced. Fujis are my favorite apples; if I have to substitute granny smiths, I would prefer just to skip the apple altogether. I am someone who thinks a lot about what I eat and tries to make good choices, but I can’t stand the thought of putting limits on how much fruit I eat. In the summer, when strawberries and cherries and blueberries and mangoes and peaches and plums and every other kind of fruit I love best is in season, I eat really incredible quantities of it. I have no way of telling whether all this fruit is bad for me or whether I am eating too much of it. I know that high blood sugar has been shown to be a risk for cancer and other diseases, and I don’t eat much refined sugar, but all the fruit I eat could be undermining my health. I hate the idea the one type of food that is wholesome, nutritious, and endlessly appealing to my appetite might be bad for me.

Here is the Hobbsean philosophy of appetite in action: unchecked by some instruction about what is good to eat, I would eat enough fruit to potentially damage my health.

Ultimately, the problem with assessing whether our appetites lead us towards what is good for us and bad for us is that we don’t actually know what is good and bad or us. We have so many choices to satisfy our appetites, some pretty obviously good (broccoli), some bad (grilled cheeseburger melt). Michael Pollan describes the concept of the omnivore’s dilemma primarily as the process of avoiding toxins: “When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer, deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety, especially when some of the potential foods on offer are liable to sicken or kill you.” This sounds as though our modern food practices should be simple: avoid things that will sicken and kill us. Rhubarb stems: good. Rhubarb leaves: bad.

But as the rest of his book demonstrates, even people who are trying to eat the most healthy food, both for themselves and for the planet, may not be able to do so. People buy “all natural” food, not realizing it is filled with unhealthy but natural additives. “Free range” chickens spend five of their seven weeks of life crowded into a warehouse, and are allowed access to a small yard, which they are too fearful to enter, for the last two weeks of their lives.

It is not so scary to indulge in our unhealthy appetites when we have willingly accepted their unhealthiness. Enthusiasts of the double down and the grilled cheeseburger melt are not trying to enhance their health when they eat those things; in fact, the appeal of those foods may lie in the willful flaunting of health. I certainly had no delusions, when I dated Mr. Confused, that he was good for me, though I’d like to think of him more as a chewy, home-baked chocolate-chip cookie rather than a greasy fast-food sandwich variant—something totally unhealthy but of such undeniably high quality that you’d be stupid to turn it down.

The real fear is that you might pick something you thought was good for you, but it turns out not to be. All that putrid, died-yellow margarine people ate in the seventies and eighties was terrible for them; meanwhile, they could have been eating actual butter. If Tom were to pass up the woman he was most attracted to and date the woman he found third most attractive, he might find her to be as bad for him as any other woman might be—because really, it’s almost impossible to tell who is good and bad for us, just as we can’t tell that our chicken did not ever go into its allotted bit of “range.” That would be the worst mistake, like forgoing the ice cream in favor of a salad covered in ranch dressing. It's not what you wanted, but it's terrible for you nevertheless.