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:
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.
“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.”
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.