To Honor and Cherish
“You need to find the rage, the anger inside.”
This might sound like a line from Star Wars or words spoken in any number of stories where a hero must overcome obstacles, only to find the real obstacle all along was the hero’s own self. What it doesn’t sound like is a conversation between a kindly, aging professor and a mopey college student hovering in her doorway asking about an upcoming assignment. But that was where I heard those words the first time, from the professor to me.
I remembered those words this week because I was finishing reading The Professor in the Cage by Jonathan Gottschall. In this work an English professor takes up mixed martial arts, or MMA, and tells a history of combat and violence for sport. But at the heart of the book lay the idea that an aggressive, determined fighting spirit is in each of us, bred there by generations of male ancestors (his theory, not mine) who needed to fight, to dominate, or to otherwise overcome others to secure their futures and the futures of their generations to come, namely, us.
For my part, the professor facing me down, telling me what I needed to find, was a theatre professor who saw a college production where I played a character that was part of the comic relief. The way the jokes worked best was to play my character from the outset as a bit of a nasty guy and a snob, so that when the character was met with the physical pain of an ailing back, the audience laughed all the harder at the doses of anguish, falls, and misery my character was forced to stomach—audiences love when jerks get what’s coming to them. Indeed, this impulse is part of what keeps the violence in sports alive, well, and profitable.
My professor’s take was that in much comedy, there must be some level of tragedy. She said that my comedic performance disclosed to her that I had an inner well of rage or anger that must be present and by tapping that well I would be a better actor. I don’t know about all of that for certain (her theory, not mine). But I do confess there were times when the raw abandon Gottschall describes at work in the mind of a pure fighter seemed almost like a relief. It hinted at a way of life unexplored thus far, where the channeling of rage for sport yields a kind of single-minded peace. Maybe this rage could really have done all my professor promised. It’s a seductive, reductive thought, isn’t it?
One of the primary motivations for one-on-one combat is the concept of honor. So taking all that was said and all I that I read, I thought of a bloody-knuckled ancestor, pummeling a safe future for future generations out of a brutish, painful present. And I wonder how best to honor that action. In my heart, I doubt very much that my ancestors did battle so that I could later do more of the same. A vastly greater part of me senses that a vision of a future descendant helping people laugh, reading a book, and then using both of those things to try to help others as best he can might touch ever more deeply the heart of that embattled ancestor and find the warmth, the kindness, and the hope inside.
And may it ever be so.
Rev. T. J.