I once believed that to be tough was to be ready to engage potential assailants, to soak up blows just as one might walk through rain. Pain tolerance was the focus of much of my physical training. I spent several hours a week pounding my fists, shins and various other collision parts in order to condition them, and traded body blows with other meatheads.
Since that time, I have realized that I was not so much teaching myself to be tough as I was trying to be a tough guy, a role for which I am decidedly not cut out. Physical pain is for the birds and should be avoided whenever feasible. Really being tough, as I now see it, is about being more trouble than you’re worth, knowing it in your heart and expressing this in such a way that only those who might attack can decipher the message. Safety and defense courses for women tell us that looking nervous draws hostile attention, but if you look just a little nervous in just the right way, dudes will cross the street at your approach. When tigers maul people, it is most often because something is making them nervous.
To this end, I hearken back to a lesson given by one of my former teachers, the climax of which, I think, was more in the vein of a parable about ferocity then a literal instruction—but I’m not totally convinced of this. In a stentorian voice, and with an accent that I can only identify broadly as Caribbean, he posed to us a no-win scenario and then gave us a way out (maybe).
“If you are ever faced with more men than you think you can defeat, you wait in your stance for the first to come within striking range. Then: You rip out his eye [an actual technique]…and you con-sume it!”
He mimed every step of his plan, finishing with his head tilted back, his mouth open wide and his right hand raised high, dropping the imaginary eye into his mouth.
He concluded, “The others will not stick around to see what else you can do.”