Friday, July 29, 2011

Wrestling with the Devil

My first wrestling match was in my junior year of high school. I was participating in this to stay in shape for football in the off-season. Through a series of unfortunate incidents I went from being the 4th string heavyweight wrestler to starting in a few days. Suddenly the cushy, aerobic training was now real and in front of crowds.

There's an entire world of rituals, ethics, and shorthand to a wrestling tournament. I was thrown in the middle of this all and tried to just blend in. My opponent looked like some horrible villain from The Hulk. Black, dark, shadowy, he was a stereotype of African American male animal power. He was 6'5 230 lbs of savage ripped muscle spread out across shoulder blades that were Stonehenge-like and ribs as massive as an airplane hangars. I stood at a very flabby, pear-shaped 5'11 with thick glasses and a nasal drip.

My coach didn't even bother looking at me or offering me advice before the match. I went out to the center of mat to shake hands. He grabbed my hand and growled "I'm gonna kick your ass." I curtly nodded and whispered under my breath 'probably.' Then a whistle sounded and a flurry of motions. His arms were moving like windmill blades. I stuck my hand in to the vortex and felt an intense chopping pain so I quickly withdrew.

There was no fear in this moment because the challenge was so impossible, so ridiculous that I was whimsically resigned to my fate: death by pulverization. Feeling light and almost giddy with expected defeat I locked up with him at the shoulders and experienced an intense crushing sound. It was the sound of my shoulders and chest cavity being compressed into soup can. My mind made a quick mental note -this ain't good- and I leaped back to safety.

Assured of his superior strength, speed, confidence, and pure rage my opponent took a step back and charged me like a bull. In one of the most brilliantly simple and instinctive reactions in my life I did one thing: I ducked.

Time slowed to a crawl. It happened just like in the movies. The sound of the crowd faded, the spotlight drew tight around me and my enemy. In ducking I managed to put a hand up over my head and touch his shoulder, guiding him quickly on the arc of his flight. As he floated by my face I could see the rage in his face slowly turning to confusion. Confusion turned to surprise as he landed on the mat.

There was an audible gasp from the crowd. And my coach looked like he just saw me grow a second head. I shrugged my shoulders. Cheering quickly returned and I looked around asking 'what do I do now?' The villain got up enraged. He charged with again with more speed and force. Once again, I ducked and tossed him over my shoulders. This time I got on top of him to score points from the referee.

That was the general flow of the match. He would charge with increased frustration. I would duck, sidestep, pivot, and try to avoid getting decapitated. Eventually the match was called. I looked around confused as the referee motioned toward the scoring table. I had scored so many points that the automatic forfeit rule kicked in to prevent further humiliation.

The referee grabbed my hand to declare me the winner and my instinct was to duck and toss him too. I resisted him for a moment, but he got a solid grip and raised my hand in victory. No one had ever raised my hand in victory. I felt very silly and suppressed my urge to burst out laughing. 

My opponent sulked away from the mat. He wasn't the massive action movie villain. He was just some big kid like me. Later that year I faced him in the division championship final. My coach tried to juice me up by telling me that my opponent was bragging about how he was going to destroy me. When we met in the center of the mat to shake hands he growled "I'm gonna kick you ass." I nodded again but didn't whisper anything this time. In the first minute he got me in very painful headlock and began trying to wrench my head from my shoulders. I knew I just had to keep my balance and not panic. I got free and proceeded to win the match on agility, sidesteps, and using my opponents strength against him. To this day whenever I face something impossible I think of wrestling with the devil. All I have to do is step to the side.

Recently I completed a silent month-long retreat in Nicaragua. It was one of the most painful, blissful, insane, satisfying moments in my life. There were times were I thought I couldn't make it and I had to keep surrendering. Keep asking for help.

I step to the side of my own demons and afflictions. They are wild, strong, savage beasts. There is no way I can out-muscle them. They will pulverize, crush, and chop me up. But in that moment I surrender and that light giddy feeling returns. I am being helped. I just have to get out of the way.

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