Boxing. It was Joyce Carol Oates’ infatuation with the metaphors permeating this bloodsport that finally nailed the coffin lid shut on my love of fiction, ironically in the last semester of my degree … in English. While I seldom read fiction anymore, I do watch it, and I recently watched an episode of one of my favorite sci-fi series, Voyager, in which boxing was the metaphor. This time it resonated, and I saw something besides animal violence and voyeuristic spectatorship. I saw, outside of the parasitic, monetized publicity of prize fights, a certain parallelism to the examined life.
What possible parallels could we find to this vile activity, we, in our civilized culture? It was suddenly clear what Oates was saying: we are in a ring, with gloves on, an opponent, and with any luck, a really good coach. Not just the most embattled of us, but all of us. That coach standing right outside the ring intones:
Stay off the ropes. It’s not about ducking punches, it’s about learning how to take them and keep going – letting your opponent tire punching you, keeping your elbows down, waiting for the best moment to launch your secret weapon, a well-practiced right jab. It’s about every minute of conditioning outside the ring that goes with you in there, being fit and knowing your strengths and weaknesses and going back into the ring anyway. It’s about proving to yourself that you’re single-minded, unswayed and unintimidated, that you have absolute integrity of mission. That you get up again until you’ve conquered.
It’s tempting to avoid sparring with life, playing it safe, never getting hurt, concentrating on taking out our opponent, forgetting that the apparent opponent is merely a sparring partner. The real opponent is within – our fears, our lack of consistency, our self-exposure, our giving up, our unwillingness to extend ourselves when the opportunity presents itself, our tendency to go into a clinch with life, holding it so that it can’t do any more damage. Our willingness to accept ourselves without proving ourselves.
Boxing, alone perhaps except wrestling in common sports, forces this sustained battle with a helpful external opponent. The point is not to overcome that opponent, but to use that opponent to overcome oneself. We do that by sparring with life, dancing, extending ourselves, taking a hit now and then, getting up every time, staying in the ring. The longer we’re there, faced with the profoundly watchful awareness a good fighter develops, the better we know ourselves, and like the instinctual response of a trained fighter, we are one – actions springing naturally from habits of previous action, our character molded around our training and unable to act at odds with what we know and do when we’re pressed by the external opponent.
The truly great fighters have absolute integrity with themselves. The ring with its sparring practice is the key to forcing us to examine … everything. What we bring to the ring, our talents and skills and resources – they are nothing if we don’t have the character, the oneness with our definition of ourselves, to endure. Like the talented fighters who succumbed to the apparent violence of the sport, we can be tempted to start fighting our opponents instead of examining ourselves. They lost their focus, and in so doing they were less than they could have been, and so could we be.
Stay in the ring. Stay off the ropes. Finish the fight. It’s a good, not a heartless coach who says those things from the darkness just outside the spotlight. I’m probably not going to go out and buy a pair of gloves or tickets to a fight, but I’m more likely to see the point of enduring my fights.
*Later, I stumbled on an essay which profoundly illustrated a few of my thoughts on the boxing metaphor. You might enjoy it as well.