Psychotherapy? No way. What Chris Rivers needed was a couple rounds of serious sparring.
It took nearly 40 years for me to feel like a man.
Entering middle age, I hadn’t tried boxing since a few psychologically scarring sessions in eighth-grade gym class. I was a small, uncoordinated, physically timid boy; the boxing lessons taught me nothing other than a fear of boxing.
Boxing seemed like a test of manliness, a test that I assumed I was the only one in the class to fail. The test wasn’t whether you boxed well (very few could claim to do that), it was whether it frightened you. In my mind, there was a clear-cut, fundamental syllogism: men aren’t afraid of boxing; you are afraid of boxing; being a man is beyond your grasp.
Boxing is of course a synecdoche for an entire world of manly activities, most but not all of which are athletic. Even if you have engaged in only one of these activities, even if that was very long ago, even if your performance was less than impressive, you are granted some sort of essential, life-long claim to virtus. You are vaccinated once and for all, immune to charges of inadequacy and effeminacy.
I was never vaccinated. I felt deficient in a vast array of masculine arenas. But, for whatever complicated set of psychological and cultural circumstances, boxing was the primal scene of shame. And as I approached my adult life, I made sure to carefully avoid any contact with the sport and actively embrace activities that were, in some symbolic way, its opposite. Easy enough.
At some point in the year leading up to my 40th birthday, that changed. I decided to get in shape. I had spent the previous two decades taking good care of my mind; it was time to take care of my body. So I went to a local gym.
The owner of the gym, a very tall, very strong, very athletic, very good-looking man with a full head of glossy hair—in short, my opposite in every way—showed me around. At the end of the tour, he asked if there was any other equipment that I would like to know how to use. With a jolt of the kind of now-or-never clarity that sometimes comes with middle age, I realized that the answer was, in fact, “Yes, I want you to teach me how to hit that heavy bag.”
One thing lead to another. Over a period of weeks and months, hitting the bag segued into hitting pads, hitting pads segued surprisingly seamlessly into some light, pedagogical sparring with the man who was no longer just the owner of the gym but my trainer and would later become my friend.
Over time, the sparring got a little more vigorous, a little more real. Occasionally, under his supervision, I put on the gloves with men other than him. I didn’t get good but I did get better. I frequently walked out of the gym buzzing with exhilaration and joy.
Those feelings were responses to the sensation of being de-traumatized, of reconnecting with a self that did not have fear at its core. Boxing was healing a wound that had been in my psyche for more than two decades. This was, I should add, a largely self-inflicted wound: the truth is that nothing particularly cruel or painful had happened in the middle-school ring. I had let myself fear fear itself and let a sense of inadequacy grow into an overpowering, mythical monster.
My sessions in the gym allowed me to slay that monster. I’ve had some excellent 50-minute psychotherapy sessions in my day, but few that can even begin to match three or four three-minute rounds of sparring.
The transformation I’ve experienced as a result of all this hitting is subtle but all-encompassing. It has changed the way I see myself—and that has changed everything else. It was made possible not only by my ongoing participation in the liturgy of the secular religion that is boxing, but by the kindness, cheerfulness, and patience with which one of its priests, my trainer, Kirik Jenness, welcomed me. He accepted me. He encouraged me. He respected my dignity. Eventually, he even liked me. He treated me like a friend and, yes, he treated me like a man.
Mine is one of many lives changed by boxing. I may not look like the stereotypical troubled kid who finds salvation in the ring, but the truth is, that’s my story. The magic works for middle-aged, middle-class, troubled white boys, too.
—Photo Fredrick LeBlanc