The cover of a recent catalog for Century Martial Arts
"Hey Four Eyes!"
I didn't even have to turn around to know a bully was targeting me.
He was obviously older, taller and heavier. Two smaller young tough guys were behind him.
"Yeah, you, pussy."
His two toadies glared at me with looks that said, "You're about to get your butt kicked."
My two younger and smaller cousins, Bobby and Mike (ages 11 and 10) were with me in front of the drugstore in downtown Wilmore, Kentucky. We had just enjoyed a vanilla Coke at the drugstore's fountain and looked at some of the comic books on the spinning wire racks.
The bully saw us when we walked out onto the sidewalk that ran up Main Street. Now he was taunting and following a little too close. "I'm gonna kick your ass."
We walked behind the drugstore and the bully and his buddies followed, his insults growing louder. We found ourselves on a gravel parking lot behind the building.
"Kenny, that's the sheriff's son," my cousin Mike whispered. "He's the town bully. He's 17 YEARS OLD!"
As usual, being a bit scrawny and friendly, always looking to smile and make jokes, I had been targeted again. If I stood in a crowd of 20 guys and a bully walked up, his eyes would focus on me like the radar on a guided missile. Every time. You could take it to the bank.
On the small gravel parking area I turned to face him, realizing there was a chance I was going to encounter some serious violence. Four years is a big age difference when you're 13. But I did have one thing going for me.
I didn't want to fight. I tried to avoid the fight. But once the fight began, I loved it. A fight was the ultimate one-on-one challenge. When the first punch was thrown, I always calmed down. I had some kind of inner confidence in myself. Where it came from, I'm not sure. I recognized the possibility of losing, but I couldn't visualize defeat. And I didn't really believe it would happen. I did not have a mental image of myself that included the option of being beaten up. I knew I would somehow find a way to win.
But I still didn't want to fight. I wasn't stupid. There was always a chance I could be hurt by a bully.
It was a tough position to be in.
I took off my glasses and handed them to Bobby. My mom would be pissed if I broke my glasses.
Jimmy was bouncing as he approached quickly and pushed me. He danced away, laughing and calling me names worse than "pussy." He bounced back up and slapped me across the face, then danced away laughing. He came up again and pushed me down. I caught myself as I crashed to the ground. The gravel scraped my palms. I got back up and picked a piece of gravel off my palm where it had been embedded. My hand was bleeding.
This went on for what seemed to be 45 minutes. The new scratches on my face were stinging. But I really didn't want to fight a 17-year-old.
He danced up again maybe the twelfth time and punched me on the side of the head as I ducked. I had to face facts. If I did nothing, I really was going to take a beating.
We have a story we tell ourselves in situations like this. "If I defend myself, if I take action, it will really make him angry. I'll really be in trouble. So maybe if I do nothing, he won't hurt me."
That is a myth, of course.
The big guy was bouncing and laughing, feeling like he was going to have an easy victory.
Alright, here goes, I thought to myself. I have to do something.
Jimmy came dancing up again, laughing like a maniac, and when he got in range, I unleashed my right fist and it caught him right in the nose.
He staggered back, stunned. His eyes were watering and he looked terrified. His hands went to his face.
"YOU HIT ME!" he shouted in pain. "YOU HIT ME!"
He began scrambling to back away, but I was walking toward him, feeling pretty determined.
"No! No!" he shouted, tears running down his face. "Don't hit me again! Don't hit me again! You win! I'm leaving!"
I was surprised, standing there with Bobby and Mike behind me, watching Jimmy, now the Former Town Bully, run away with his two toadies following after him, glancing behind them to make sure I wasn't coming for revenge.
My cousins were jumping up and down like they had bet money on me to win.
The mean streets of Wilmore, Kentucky, population 2,300, were safe again.
Why do I tie this story into a post about toxic masculinity?
Because the voices of guys like Jimmy make a lot of noise on social media, particularly on martial arts sites and pages. They are keyboard bullies and they criticize videos, accuse other martial artists of being weak, belittle you with "laugh" emojis, and they use the same common language like, "Try that against an MMA fighter," or "Take that into a cage and you'll be killed."
Jimmy's voice is also prominent now in politics, with guys who have a misguided idea of masculinity. They make fun of men who have replaced camo with compassion, braggadocio with humility, and racism with respect. If you are concerned about the hardships others face, you are accused of being less than a "real" man.
The bullies who call themselves "real" men want to say what they want, about anyone they want, when they want, and if you don't like it you are nothing but a woke pussy.
What does it take to be a real man? Does the young, normal kid on the cover of the Century Martial Arts catalog a couple of years ago (pictured above) really want to become the hulking, bearded, slightly menacing guy with the black belt in the mirror?
I saw an ad for a men's workout program on Facebook last week and the guy selling the program posed with a gun, dressed in camo, with bulging muscles that looked to be straight out of a steroid injection, and a German Shepherd by his side.
Is that what it means to be a man? Is that what it means to be fit?
Does strength come from the size of your muscles or the quality of your character? What is the meaning of "Internal Strength" in this context?
In the Tao Te Ching, Chapter 67 has been interpreted as suggesting that true stength and leadership come from kindness, humility, and generosity.
When you are good to people, empathetic with people whose color or religious beliefs are different from yours, and when you are aware of how words can hurt, it takes strength to decide to move through this world and leave something positive in your wake. Each day, everywhere I go, I look for ways to be kind to people.
Can you be a "real" man as you do good and be kind?
Josh Hawley is a U.S. Senator who has a new book out called "Manhood." You might remember Josh. He is the one who raised his fist to salute the mob on January 6 that tried to violently overturn our democracy. Josh raised his fist to salute the mob and not long afterwards was seen running for his life to get away from the mob. It was captured on video.
But there are a lot of people Josh doesn't like. Gay people, trans people, non-Christians, immigrants trying to find a better life, poor people -- the list of people Josh Hawley doesn't like is a long one. If you have empathy for some of the people Josh doesn't like, he thinks you're a woke pussy.
He saluted the violent mob and then ran for his life.
I don't think Josh has very much he can teach me about manhood.
That's why I have my own definition of manhood. And it's the definition I try to live by.
It is "quiet confidence."
As I grew up, I tried to develop the qualities in myself to greet everyone with a sense of humor, with politeness, kindness, and fairness. I worked on making myself more empathetic to the problems and needs of people who are different than I. If I made a mistake, I owned up to it. When I was a "boss," I tried to treat people fairly and help them succeed in their careers. I'm still working on myself. We are all works in progress.
A general manager who hired me to run the newsroom in his TV station told me, "One thing I like about you is that you are as nice as you can be, and you are as tough as you have to be."
I've tried to behave that way as a martial arts teacher, too.
In my day-to-day life, I try to be aware of what is going on around me, and I know that if someone is in physical danger, or being emotionally mistreated in my presence, I will take action.
When someone is with me they are safe. I don't announce it. I don't have to announce it. They might not even be aware of it. But they are safe when they are with me.
I don't have the need to look tougher than you or act tougher than you. You might be tougher than I am. That isn't even a concern. You're training for a full-contact cage match? Good luck. It doesn't change who I am. And your self-esteem shouldn't be affected by what I'm working on in the arts.
I cry at movies. Hell, I'm so sentimental, I cry when they show the "Turn Off Your Cell Phone" announcement at movies.
I raised my daughters to have a sense of humor, to understand they are loved, and they turned into women who feel compassion for others.
I treat my wife with love and try to help her live a fulfilled life, like she does me.
I seek to feel the pain felt by people who have suffered from racism. I hurt when I know people are up against the wall and can't afford to meet basic living expenses.
In the classic story by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is cruel, stingy, and critical of people who are poor. But through a series of ghostly visitors who make him look at the past, the present and the future, Scrooge "awakens" to the true meaning of life. At the end of the movie he is "woke" and he helps ease the suffering of others. He becomes a good man by the end of the story.
There is a reason Scrooge's story is so popular. The message resonates with people. We want to be better people, more kind and generous. The bad guys are the ones who are cruel and stingy. The bad guys are the ones who are not woke.
"The Buddha" is a name that means "one who has awakened." The Buddha was born into a rich family and he was shocked and horrified when he became aware of the suffering of others. He became woke and devoted the rest of his life to teaching people how to achieve enlightenment and ease their own suffering.
Our society is in a defining moment, when some "leaders" are trying to tell us that if we become awakened to the pain and needs of others, and we do something about it, we are "woke" and that means we are their enemies. Ron DeSantis is waging a "War on Woke." To him, to Josh Hawley and many other guys like them, I am not a real man.
Tonight, coming home from dinner with a brutal heat index of 110 degrees, a mentally ill woman was sitting outside on a sidewalk on one of the busiest streets in town, talking to herself. I spotted her as we drove by. I stopped and bought a cold bottle of Gatorade at a nearby store and took it to her. She was sitting in the grass next to the sidewalk, babbling incoherently about finding her lighter. She took the Gatorade and poured it on her head. I called 9-1-1 and police were sending a patrolman to see that she is alright.
It would have haunted me to pass on by to leave her sitting in the heat. How many cars passed her by? How many people saw her and were thinking critical thoughts about a poor homeless woman talking to herself?
Am I less of a man?
Live your philosophy. If you are a Christian, love your neighbor. If you are a Buddhist, ease people's suffering. I lean toward Eastern philosophy, so I want to remain centered and do good and be kind. There is no other meaning of life greater than this, in my opinion.
Chapter eight of the Tao Te Ching says, "The highest form of goodness is like water. Water knows how to benefit all things without striving with them."
As a great man once said, "Be water, my friends."
I would much rather have a drink and joke around with guys like Jimmy, the town bully, rather than fight.
But if Jimmy decides he's a real man and tells me I'm not because I don't behave like he does, or because I don't do his martial art, or because I look weaker, or he says I'm a "pussy" for caring about others, or because I try not to say things that hurt other people, he's not being a real man. He's not being a "true martial artist." He's a bully, plain and simple.
And you know what happens to bullies. Here's a secret: They aren't really very strong inside. Right, Jimmy?
--by Ken Gullette