One of my earliest memories is standing out in the yard with my Dad and brothers, wearing boxing gloves. I used to enjoy watching professional boxers on TV with my Dad. The show was sponsored by Gillette razors and the commercials had a funny cartoon parrot. It was all very manly.
The boxing didn’t seem very real to me and the bouts rarely lasted long. But out in the yard it was suddenly very real. My Dad told me to hit him and, for the first time I became conscious of some serious inner conflicts.
I didn’t want to hit my Dad. I loved him. I actually don’t remember ever being struck by him except for an occasional judicious swat on my behind. But to get into fisticuffs with him seemed bizarre. I was completely ignorant of how the rules worked. What if I hurt him? I didn’t want to hurt him. And I didn’t want his response if I did.
It only made sense that he would also get a turn. Having much greater reach than me, at six, I was completely outclassed. And he was a former Marine. Who knew what he was capable of? I would have to take him out with my first punch. Either way, I would suffer consequences. It was all too complicated for my little brain. How had I gotten into this?
I declined the match.
The story of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” comes to mind. Gawain was one of the heroes from King Arthur’s round table. In it, Gawain is challenged to a dual by a mysterious Green Knight. Gawain is granted the first strike with his sword, an obvious advantage.
Gawain makes the most of it and triumphantly cuts the Green Knight’s head off. At which point, the Green Knight stands and picks up his head. The disembodied head then tells Gawain that in one year, he will return with his response, and that Gawain should prepare.
Gawain has a tough year. Anticipating the worst, he trains but knows he cannot withstand this threat. How can he beat the unbeatable? Defend the indefensible? He basically goes through the seven stages dying; denial, depression, bargaining, etc.
A year passes, and Gawain is resigned to his destiny. He is terrified but he does not run. The Green Knight arrives and Gawain submits to his fate. The Green Knight touches Gawain’s neck with his sword, and then withdraws it, mercifully.
It is a huge moment in the original and completely unexpected. Gawain had no reason to expect this. He didn’t deserve it. Yet there it was. There was nothing Gawain could have done to earn it. How can one demand that justice be tempered with mercy? He couldn’t.
Of course, I realize that my father also would not have acted on his right to get even with me had I clocked him that warm summer’s day.
That wasn’t his style at all.