Illustration by Kelsey Wroten

We’re a Family of Hitters


Since we named one son after a Greek warrior and another after a Roman emperor,  it should not come as a surprise that Achilles and Augustus are both natural born hitters. I woke up this morning to a tiny fist hammering my body out from the land of Nod. It was Achilles, 5. He was mad I wouldn’t let him use my cufflinks as barter for Pokémon cards at school. When  I went to rouse Auggie, 3, he stirred from sleep with a hail of upkicks to my chin. I expected as much and held my hands in guard.

What is, perhaps, surprising is how much I still love hitting too.

Slamming my fist into the face, or my knee into a midsection, or my shin across the ribs of another person is one of my life’s most sublime pleasures. As long as I can remember I’ve loved to hit people. I don’t mean I’m hard. Certainly I’m not that. I’ve never gotten into an actual unsanctioned fight fight, one where there’s no one to stop it, no rules to codify it, or container of sport to hold it safely.

josh stein hitting punching bag

The author at the speed bag

There was that one embarrassing but perhaps necessary tussle I had with my father as a teenager, but that was more gestural than physical anyway.

Nevertheless, in sparring sessions over the years and in nightly classes, I’ve delivered my share of knockouts or at least clean shots. And the satisfaction of it is unlike anything else I’ve ever known. Perhaps some fighters don’t feel the onrush of aggression that borders on hatred when they face an opponent or the release when that passion is given physical form. They’re probably the more successful ones. But the only thing I can think of when I’m in the ring or on the mat or even facing a bag is that I want to inflict as much pain on the thing in front of me as possible. Trying to square that with raising sons who are meant to be kind and abhor violence is, quite naturally, a quandary.

When Achilles melts down, it is total and terrifying. He growls and barks. His small biceps tense and his eyes bulge. He cries himself hoarse and sweat and he flails. Auggie, whose tantrums are more rare, is deceptively strong for a three-year-old. His go-to moves are the eye claw and the arm bite.

Like a helicopter parent, my rage waits impatiently on the other side of the sandbox of my mind, eager for an excuse to intervene.

I spend an inordinate amount of time advocating for nonviolent conflict resolution. Both in the home and in the classroom — where the proscription against hitting others has the full force of the DOE behind it — violence is verboten. Closing one’s hands into a ball and slamming that ball into the body of another human, measuring the success of the action by the damage inflicted by it, holds more stigma than nearly any other act of defiance in my home. Hunger strikes, sidewalk meltdowns, and toy throwing are minor sins in comparison to bodily assault.

Meanwhile, I’m still struggling with my own aggression. I was an angry kid growing up. A few years ago my mother sent me a psychiatric evaluation done when I was eight years old. Joshua’s anger is a blanket for the sadness, it read. I had it framed and hung it on the wall until my therapist suggested that wasn’t healthy. I grew from an angry boy into an angry young man then an angry young husband and now an angry father.

If you asked me during peak rage, whether I hit, I would say, “No, I hit back.” Like a helicopter parent, my rage waits impatiently on the other side of the sandbox of my mind, eager for an excuse to intervene. These excuses — often imagined offenses or slights so slight only the anger-eyed can sight them — become the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and into the fray we go.

If my wife suggests the sea bream I brought home might have been an unwise dinner decision (my children do not eat fish) in comes anger, howling, How dare you attack me when I’ve tried so hard? If she walks too fast, I take it to mean she’s accusing me of walking too slow. If she talks too slow, I take it to mean she thinks  I can’t keep up.  Of course, sometimes she does mean those things meanly. Often she does not.

It’s as if, when they throw tantrums, our anger nods at each other through time.

Where my sons are concerned, my anger is slightly harder to summon. Young as they are, they have not yet become as capable of calculated slights as has their mother has. Mostly with them, my rage is summoned after being hit in the face. Even then, the rage contorting my features is only momentary. Still, the terror on their faces tells me it does not go unregistered.

The insane rage, the total war rage, comes, however, when I feel unlistened to or misunderstood. Then anger deploys like hopped-up infantry to protect my ego with slash-and-burn ferocity. Sometimes I hit walls. Sometimes I punch cabinets. I have never punched a person but have, I admit, used my body to block egress.

I’m also thrower. Not a thrower at-er but a thrower. When we move from our apartment, our security deposit will largely be eaten up by the pockmarks and punctures inflicted by keys and mugs and the like onto the surfaces of our house.  When I pass the indentations I am reminded of how close I’ve come to losing control, of how many times I’ve lost control. I’ve never crossed the threshold to abuse, never hit nor slapped nor manhandled my family,  but I’ve gotten close enough to where I see that shadow in the doorframe and it terrifies everyone.

Hitting and being hit has made me a much better father.

I’ve got three decades on my kids, thirty years during which I should have found a way to cope. But I still relate to their flickers of complete rage which erupt into physical violence because I still feel that impulse in my own bones. It’s as if, when they throw tantrums, our anger nods at each other through time.

Hitting helps.

I’ve been doing some sort of martial art since I was ten years old. Shortly after my parents divorce, I dragged my mother to the local YMCA and we both signed up for training in aikido, a Japanese martial art that eschews striking for joint locks and throws. After a little while, my mother took up with the sensei and he moved into our house. My training began in earnest and lasted for ten years, often six days a week for about two hours a day. As an adult, I turned to boxing, then Brazilian Jujitsu, and now muay thai. What these pursuits lack in elevated philosophy and rigorous formality, they make up for in impact.

For a while, after my kids were born, I stopped hitting altogether. Time and money were, naturally, an issue. But, more saliently, I was still struggling with bouts of insane rage and I thought perhaps it was the martial arts that were feeding my aggression.

I realized the art part of martial arts, that invisible envelope that turned physical violence from prosecutable to leisure, wasn’t an engine for aggression but a coping mechanism for it.

After a few weeks, I knew I had it completely backward. During that layoff, I lost my shit all the time, at everything, with everybody. Rage contorted my neck and tensed my muscles at the slightest provocation. All I wanted to do was to hit people. I realized the art part of martial arts, that invisible envelope that turned physical violence from prosecutable to leisure, wasn’t an engine for aggression but a coping mechanism for it. So I returned to the ring, lacing up my gloves and putting up my hands, as Virgil once advised the strong and collected of spirit to do.

Now I’m back training, taking class at a wonderful second-floor Muay Thai gym in Manhattan called Chok Sabai. But it’s different from before. It’s safe to say I’ve lapsed into middle-age mediocrity. I’ll never be great or even barely good. And I’ll probably never fight in a sanctioned bout or even a more informal smoker. I might never spar again. My cardio is shit, my technique has only flashes of brilliance and, recently, I’ve been eating a lot of knees to the stomach. I’ve found myself unable to stop combinations landing to my head and torso. That doesn’t feel good. Meanwhile, I’m more cognizant than ever before of my own struggle to keep my aggression appropriate. The importance of this lesson has been reinforced since often the person I turn it up against can turn it up against me even harder. Even in martial arts, anger is a weakness.

But even so, hitting and being hit has made me a much better father. Now, when I see my children feel powerless, as children often do, I can sympathize.  When they succumb to the impulse to turn it up, I empathize. When I see anger rack the bodies of my boys, I know better than to try to stop it. I divert it, away from my face, away from a place of destruction.  I’ve let my boys try on my boxing gloves, so big they go up to their biceps. I’ve shown them how to throw a proper punch and how to keep their guard up. Achilles has already begun capoeira and, when he’s old enough, will start Muay Thai. Auggie will soon don a gi and become a judoka. And through the hitting, I’ve developed my own technique. Sometimes I just listen and let the anger extinguish itself as flails of tiny fists are met by hugs. But what I’ve realized is that we’re a family of hitters. It’s time to stop fighting that and to enter the fray.

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