On Boxer's Confidence
Guest post by Resident Contrarian
This guest post is from Resident Contrarian. RC is a Christian, a father, a blogger of long standing (he’s got a “hundreds of paid subscribers” checkmark on Substack, which means he’s doing something right), and both one of the most thoughtful writers and one of the nicest people I’ve ever encountered. He’s one of those guys who seems to know all the smart, interesting people, probably because he’s smart and interesting himself. His blog is incredibly worth reading, and you should read it.
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Some people are culturally boxers, as opposed to people who have done some boxing training here and there. I live in Arizona, which has a fair amount of Hispanic culture and stemming from that a fair amount of boxer culture as well. Occasionally, you run into a guy who has been boxing since his childhood. This is a guy who, whatever else he may be, is objectively so much better at fighting than average that in comparison it’s like nobody else knows how to fight at all.
With normal caveats made for small sample sizes and personal bias, I’ve found these guys are not only not violent and not just not aggressive, but usually actively sweet and polite. They are nice dudes. They have confidence-not-bravado in a way that (in my limited experience) makes them friendly to almost everyone, and genuinely fun to be around. They are, so to speak, confident in their own skin.
I haven’t lived that life, but I’ve had some conversations with a few of these dudes over the years and I have a sort of half-guess, half-model for why this is:
1. At some point these people became aware that even if they weren’t very good at fighting by the standards of fighters, they at least knew how to do it—this contrasted them heavily with the 99.9% of everybody who doesn’t, and removed fear.
2. Despite #1, they also are one-and-all aware of someone who is better than them, which gives them perspective on their skill.
3. Independent of #1-2, they’ve now been good at boxing so long that it’s no longer that interesting to them.
Combining all these, you end up with a guy who moves around the world physically undaunted. He knows he's good at at least one thing, which makes him feel good enough about himself that he's free to focus on you feeling good about the interaction.
I’m talking about fighting here, but this article isn’t about putting your kids in a boxing class from an early age or taking one yourself, even though I don’t think that’s a bad idea for a lot of people. I just want to get you in a particular mindset—here’s a dude, a man, who has something that everyone wants; he feels pretty good about an aspect of himself in a way that makes his life better.
When Jay asked me to write something here, he gave me general direction in the sense that he let me know this would be going in his “let’s all talk about healthy masculinity” section. For a dude like me, that ends up with a romp through the many years I spent not liking myself much—where I had a kind of stunted, never-made-it-to-manhood feel about me. I wasn’t making much money, I didn't have much direction, and I think it was generally obvious to everyone that I was just thrashing around looking for something to be.
I usually try to flow smoothly from paragraphs like the last, but instead of doing that I'm going directly to an important question: How many traits can you think of, off the top of your head, that would make you feel good about yourself if you possessed them? Like, say you were the world’s best shoelace knot tier. Would it help you feel justified in who you are, as you walk around the world? Could you hang your hat on it, even partially?
I have an Aunt who I consider wise, who once said something like this:
“I don’t care what my kids end up doing for a living. They can go to college, or not; they can make a lot of money or not. What I care about is that they are good friends, good Christians, good citizens and good family members. Those are the things I spend my energy trying to guide them towards.”
I wasn’t there, but it seems like there was a time when something like “being a good citizen” carried more weight; where being a good, peace-enhancing neighbor was acknowledged as good both by the neighbor and the people around him. If you are a good neighbor and a good citizen who enhances the world we all have to live in together—not in a “startup” way, but in a “mundane sort of existing well” way—do you let yourself feel good about it?
Are you a good brother? A good father? A good son? Because it seems to me like there’s a lot of people walking around who should feel good about that—who should understand it makes them a net gain in an It’s A Wonderful Life sense who just don’t let themselves feel that way.
In The Hobbit, a dying dwarf says the following to a little timid man who just wants to go home and sit on his couch:
If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!
That’s something you say to a friend who you value because he's a good friend, in hopes that he values himself because he’s a good friend.
I write this knowing that, at baseline, some of the people who read it aren’t necessarily good friends, or good fathers, or good brothers. They aren’t particularly good citizens. And for some of them, it’s not exactly because they are jerks—I know nice people who fail on a lot of these points, because life has been mean to them. From their perspective they’d describe it as being lonely; when they think about romance, they think about wanting someone to care for. That sort of thing.
Some people who fail on this point, though, fail because they only allow themselves to think of a small subset of good things to be as really carrying any self-affirming weight. They’d feel good about themselves if they made enough money, or could buy cool cars, or were in a certain kind of shape. And because that’s where they think the value lives, those are the things they pursue. And they aren’t bad things to pursue! Those things are fine in isolation. But they aren’t the only things, they aren’t necessarily the best things, and they aren’t things everyone can get.
I think if you focus just on those things—the things that impress people—you are tautologically chasing things that are rare by definition; you are looking to out-perform the average. You are looking to get ahead of the Joneses. And by definition most people are going to fail at this. There’s a perspective-granting argument where people point out that you are materially richer than a fifth century king in a lot of ways; you possess wonders he couldn’t dream of. But they don’t matter, because you aren’t beating most people now, which is what that whole subset of things is about.
I’m not guaranteeing success if you change that. I’m saying that it’s possible you are working in a self-imposed framework of bad incentives that don’t always pay out, where the penalty for the incentives not paying out is sadness.
I have a couple friends who listen to me when I talk about stuff nobody cares about—who will, say, listen to me describe a stupid part of an isekai novel or some boring problem involving changing the sway-bar mounts on a car. This actually means a lot to me, and it probably means a lot to anyone who has weird interests nobody cares about. If you were a good listener, would you let yourself feel as good about it as other people do?
The biggest part of being a good father is being present and available; it’s not 100%, but things tend to turn out pretty good if your kids know you are around for them and care about what they do. A good father is all-important to a child—they are an immortal bastion of power and security, something larger than life. If you are a father, do you let any of that seep in? Do you let yourself know how important it is?
Somewhere, there’s someone who is weaker and worse than you are. There just is. Helping them is mostly to help them, yes. But it’s also helping you—it’s giving you purpose and something you can use to justify your own existence, to feel good about what you are doing and who you are. Do you let yourself feel that way?
I ask all this because what I want for you is what boxers tend to have—the confidence that they have at least one thing under control, one thing that they know lends them some level of worth. You can build off that kind of thing—it’s a foundation that lets you feel good enough (or not-bad enough) to go out and so incrementally bigger things, like reassembling a matryoshka doll except with your general well-being subbing in for wooden babushkas.
I’m saying that even making a dog happy carries worth. And it’s worth that you should be allowed to feel, and use to push you to the next step.
I haven't even seen very many organic fights, but it has always been two guys who clearly do not know how to fight.
Such confidence can come from any such craftsmanship, including writing such that you have hundreds of paid subscribers (I imagine). But there is definitely a specific kind of confidence that comes from knowing how to handle yourself in a fight.
What a lovely humane piece.