A Most Strange Wrestling Match


It was the beginning of summer and my older brother, Benj, who was 15 ½ years old (remember when that extra ½ year meant so much), and I, who had recently turned 12, challenged me to a game of stickball.  Although he was older, he respected my athletic prowess and understood that his age would probably not be the determining factor.

After playing a few innings, we heard the familiar sound of the Good Humor Truck that frequented the playground area where we were playing.  Benj quickly straddled the fence, calling to the truck to stop, with me in hot pursuit.  Although he was not much of an athlete, I  respected his skill in straddling the fence sideways inasmuch as I never quite mastered that feat with ease. 

Refreshed from the sodas, we returned to the stickball court to discover that there were two guys standing in our court.  My brother, in an irritated tone, told them that the stick and ball were ours and that we had not finished our game.  Although both of them were taller and bulkier than we were, I estimated their age to be somewhere between Benj’s and mine.  The bigger of the two of them made a threatening gesture saying something to the effect: “I’m not leaving so you’ll have to make me.”  Knowing that neither of us had much experience in fighting, I readied myself to depart and allow the two of them to take over the court.  To my amazement, my brother stubbornly refused to leave, saying: “Fair is fair and we were here first.”

Not to my surprise, the two of them got louder and challenged us to a fight.  My brother did not back down, but said the fight had to be in front of the school where there was grass, the only place, as he put it, a “real fight” could happen.  They agreed.  While the two of them boldly strode ahead of us, I looked up toward the heavens, in hope of a miracle, wondering what Benj might be thinking.  Signaling to me not to utter a sound, he walked behind them with a cocky gait and I, the younger brother, timidly followed all of them.

When we reached the lawn in front of the school, my brother assertively told the other two that this spot would be fine.  The two of them huddled for a moment, with the bigger one saying that he would fight my brother, who he mockingly called “big mouth.”  My brother, assuming an audacious tone of voice, explained to them that this was going to be a wrestling match with each of them adhering to high school rules, and that he had wrestled on the high school team.  When I heard that, I gasped in shock, but held my tongue.  During the wrestling season, Benj had made the sports headlines of our local newspaper for having been the fastest pin of the year in 11 seconds: To clarify, he was the one who had been pinned.

Meanwhile Benj, went on in pedagogical fashion, demonstrating to his opponent, who I will call the Hulk, how to get into the referee’s position where both squat on fours.  The Hulk looked at him confused and mumbled “is this it?”  “No, no,” Benj replied, and he made a gesture pointing to the Hulk’s position.  When the latter switched his stance, Benj again told him, “no” saying that he would be disqualified or would have to forfeit the match if he continued in the same manner.  They went back and forth with Benj doing the instructing, and the Hulk attempting to follow my brother’s guidance.  Suddenly, he threw his hands up in disgust and stormed off with his friend but not wanting to lose face, and like a bully, he tried to browbeat us with words of intimidation. 

When they were out of hearing, Benj told me you can talk your way out of any fight if you need to.  I remember that we returned home triumphantly having no interest in continuing the stickball game.  Whether the two of them went back to play stickball, I had my doubts.  But because big brother Benj had made his point, it no longer mattered to us.


Can You Be Nice and Assertive at the Same Time?


In thinking about distinguishing between assertive and nice behavior, I recall the famous line by Leo Durocher, the player and manager of several baseball teams,  “Nice guys finish last.”  In an earlier blog, I broke down the concept of assertiveness into four behaviors.  To briefly recapitulate: These behaviors consist of the following:  1) The ability to say No; 2) The ability to make positive or negative comments to anyone; 3) The ability to both initiate and terminate a conversation with a friend, acquaintance or stranger and 4) The ability to ask for a favor or a request of a relative, friend or acquaintance.

Nice is probably one of the most overused words in the English language and, consequently, it is a poor descriptor of human behavior.  I can relate to many of my clients who don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings and/or want to be liked by everyone.  Those that try and accomplish this impossible feat, and here, I confess to having these tendencies, represent the quintessence of what it means to be “nice.”  This high need of approval, craved by many, inhibits the expression of the above assertive behaviors in various situations.  Niceness, in this sense, can result in self-demeaning behavior that may lead to a not so pleasant life experience.  Frequently, I have had to oppose my natural instinct, to let things ride by not putting my foot down to draw the line, when others may be taking advantage of me.  One who regards others as more important than his or herself will have difficulty winning, and will more than likely, finish last in the game of life.

Assertive behavior is a right and not a privilege.  When I just had graduated college back in 1967, I attended a conference sponsored by the American Psychological Association, in Washington D.C.  The session that most vividly stands out in my mind was a film showing and exploring the relics Freud had kept in his office where he practiced before he died.  One of these was his pipe.  This was a time when smoking was not universally prohibited, as it is currently. There was a gentleman in his 50’s, who appeared quite erudite, sitting next to me in the packed theater.  In the front of the auditorium by the stage, one clearly could see a sign in bold red letters that read:  No Smoking.   After the lights were dimmed marking the start of the film, to my misfortune my scholarly friend pulled out a cigar and lit it, completely oblivious to the sign.  His age and his demeanor thwarted me such that I felt it inappropriate to interrupt the pleasure he appeared to be deriving from his cigar.  So, I sat through the movie (fortunately, it was quite short) having to breathe in and endure the obnoxious aroma and air permeated by the cigar’s smoke.

The above example illustrates the point that age and/or status do not preempt another’s right in asserting oneself.   Because no one else asked him not to smoke, it was apparent that I was not alone in having been intimidated by this individual.  Although it was within my right to confront him, I, like the others, remained silent.

About two years ago, I experienced another situation in which I chose not to assert myself.  I had been going to the same fitness club as another fellow, who I will call Jim for the sake of confidentiality.  Physically, he was quite muscular and much bigger than I was.  We often exercised at about the same time and, so over time, we maintained a cordial relationship and became friendly acquaintances.  However, after some months had passed by, I noticed that he had become distant and less friendly than previously.  Subsequently, on one occasion, I felt the butt of his intrusive manner, when he preempted a bench that I was about to use, despite the fact that his partner indicated I had been waiting to go next.  He acted as if I were invisible, saying “it’s no big deal,” and he took the bench without my confronting him.  I felt both surprised and nonplussed by his action and, in thinking there might have been negative repercussions if I had objected, decided not to risk incurring his wrath by asserting myself.

A few months later, while doing curls with a barbell, I was waiting for a female to finish using another bench.  When she got off the bench, Jim approached her and asked her if she was finished using it, and though she nodded yes, she pointed out to him that I had been waiting to get on it.  When he saw me pick up the barbell to complete my last set of curls, in defiance, he said: “You’re not using it now.  You can go use the other bench.”  In the past, whenever a situation like this would arise with someone else, either that person would let me use the bench or might ask how long I would be using it.  Jim did neither.  Nevertheless, feeling intimidated and fearful of an angry confrontation, I allowed Jim to preempt me and take the bench.

Afterwards, I did not feel good about my inability to stand up to Jim.  To reiterate, might and strength are not equal to right, although, I must say, it did not feel that way.  It weighed on my mind to such an extent that I knew, for my own sanity, I needed to approach Jim about it. Given my understanding of this man, I wanted to avoid an angry clash with him, so I decided to take the advice of a psychiatrist friend and employ a technique similar to what is known as disarming.  This strategy involved my inquiring whether or not I had done something wrong to alter what had begun as a rather congenial relationship.

When I saw alone him outside of the fitness room, I went over to him and employed my disarming technique but it had little effect on the interaction.  I made a point of giving him direct eye contact, and not looking away from him, due to feeling threatened or frightened. In essence, he said that I had not done anything to piss him off but “things change over time.”  I assumed he was referring to his own personal situation, and I wanted to stay away from that insofar as it had little bearing on what had happened between the two of us. Although he was semi-apologetic about the bench, there remained a combination of anger and defensiveness in his tone of voice.  Because Jim said he was beginning to feel uncomfortable after I had made my point, I decided not to pursue it any further.

Although I had wished my talk with Jim to have been more conciliatory, I did feel better about expressing myself in an assertive manner.    About a week later, when I entered the locker room, Jim, sitting alone, started to stare at me.  In refusing to allow fear to overwhelm me, I returned his stare, again looking directly in his eyes.  Neither of said a word to the other.  I said to myself: “Fine, if this is what he wants, I will let him have it.”  In asserting my right to be present was no less than his right, I realized that, for now, a cordial relationship between the two of us was not in the picture.  However, what was different for me now than in the past, was I could accept that as a fact of life, with little worry or further thought.  If I had been “nice,” I would have allowed Jim to not respect my space when lifting weights.  Regardless, of how he acts toward me in the future, I made it abundantly clear that my space in the gym is as important as his.



The Fight

Arthur Kovacs, a long time mentor in my private practice as a psychologist, once told me that “your problem Bernard is not commission but omission of behavior.” I have fought this particular character weakness of mine all my life. I use the word “character,” in this context, intentionally, because it implies a trait that has been with me since childhood, thereby, occupying a more than transient part of my being.

Dr. Kovacs’ comment brought back a vivid memory that very much substantiated what he had to say. I had just graduated high school and, I had procured a light construction job with Union County in New Jersey the summer before I was to start college. Although this was a summer job, the other summer employees had started earlier because they had returned from college about a month earlier than my high school graduation. I remember being assigned to Snuffy’s crew in which we were to do light repair work on bridges. Some of the bigger guys on the crew actually handled jack hammers, but only for short periods of time due to liability issues.  Everyone in the group was cordial and quite helpful to me, the youngest of all of them, treating me almost as if I were their kid brother. However, as luck would have it, after a week of working with that bunch of guys, I was transferred to another unit because I had begun later than the rest and someone, who had started working before me, had requested a transfer to Snuffy’s crew.

I was reassigned to Joe’s crew of three college juniors with myself being the fourth, a group much smaller than Snuffy’s gang of 15. I remember my first day overhearing one of them, Jim, tell his friend Billy that I was a faster and more efficient worker than the fellow I had replaced. It felt good hearing that and, I figured that it would not be so bad working with these guys despite the fact that I had developed a really good rapport with Snuffy’s crew members. The job consisted mostly of sweeping and cleaning the residue left on County bridges in addition to minor chipping and painting. It was toilsome but really not hard work and, I didn’t mind it at all as it paid pretty well for someone, like me, who had just turned 18.

Unfortunately, my honeymoon with those guys ended quickly. Two of them, Jimmy and Billy, were friends and hung out together all of the time. The third, Steve, was a big husky guy who hung out on his own, sort of away from it all, who I made an attempt to befriend.   Jimmy and Billy were both inseparable and impenetrable and, it soon became apparent, that in no way were they going to allow me to enter into their very private circle.

Although I went to an all boys’ public high school in Elizabeth, an urban area, I was very popular with all types of guys and rarely, if ever, had been bullied. In fact, I remember befriending a black football player two years older than I, who was said to be the toughest guy in the school. I’m not sure what he saw in me but I sort of idolized him and, when he responded in a positive way, I felt a boyish sense of pride. Needless to say, my experience in high school did not prepare me for what was about to happen with Jimmy and Billy.

Early on they began to tease me with words that soon after escalated to throwing water at me when I would sit in the truck with Joe, the crew leader. Although Joe was there in body, he was oblivious to Jimmy and Billy’s antics. The two of them had an interesting but very predictable relationship in the manner by which they went about taunting me: Jimmy would perform all of the offensive acts whereas Billy would instigate his friend by applauding and reinforcing Jimmy’s obnoxious behaviors. Why didn’t I react? This is where Dr. Kovacs’ observation hit a vital chord inasmuch as I almost felt paralyzed in not being able to answer back to them in some way. Steve, the other college junior, who was not part of their clique, would tell me “why don’t you give them the finger or do something back like I do?”   Easy for Steve to say that, I thought, he being much bigger than I was as Jimmy and Billy were bigger than I. Although I did not think so at the time, I later came to understand that size or physical build was not really the issue. Rather, it had more to do with an insatiable desire to be liked by all those around me: Having friends, being the popular one, had always meant an awful lot to me. I believed that if I fought back, neither of them would talk to me nor like me: It was this deep fear of rejection that prevented me from acting. Ah, but the mind plays funny tricks on us, does it not? I was afraid that they would not like me but by not fighting back their behavior toward me, in fact, worsened. And yet, somehow I could only imagine that they would like me if I remained passive.

How wrong I was! Each day the frequency of the bullying behaviors increased, and soon, I came to dread going to work. I found myself trapped in a hostile environment that felt foreign to me and, I hoped, with each night, that the bullying tactics of Jimmy and Billy would go away. But things only got worse until at the end of one day my black lunch pail appeared to have a leak. When I opened it up, it was full of water. I remember seeing a group of co-workers that I did not know well, because they worked on different teams, before spotting Jimmy, standing about 30 or 40 feet away from me, staring at me. I felt a pulsating heat under my collar, an anger I had rarely experienced in my life, taking control of my body. I did not fight to restrain it: My boiling point had been reached. I took the lunch pail and running toward Jimmy hurled the water at him. One of the guys standing there in complete awe asked me why I had done that. I did not reply.

We all cheer for the underdog: One of the guys, who had been friendly with Jimmy and Billy, decided to take my side. He beckoned to me: “You can soak him good with the hose. He’s in the group meeting room where the hose is.” As he said this, he led me over to the room where Jimmy was standing, started uncoiling the hose and quickly gave it to me. As soon as he gave it to me, he turned the water on and I aimed the unfurled hose at Jimmy. He ran at me as I doused him with water. For a moment all eyes were on us and, I felt an eerie sensation tickling my spine because I understood that my current behavior had no antecedents. Hell, if I knew how to fight. No, it was not a skill I had developed as I was too popular for that. As our bodies met, a couple of brawny foremen came out and stood between us stopping the fight and, when I was able to gather my wits some, I was quite thankful that they had intervened. As the rational side of my brain began to take over my being, I breathed a sigh of relief.

The next day Jimmy was transferred to another unit. His friend Billy, perhaps both amused and shocked by my gall, told me to be aware of Jimmy because he had said he would seek revenge when I may not be ready for it.   How strange that Billy was suddenly an ally of mine. I do not know if the smile I felt surfaced, but within me, I certainly felt that my actions had caused a chain reaction of people backing me: I was no longer seen as a submissive weakling, but rather now, I was viewed as someone who was willing to risk the consequences of a brave action. No, Jimmy never did seek revenge and yes, I had won the respect of those around me.