Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Yesterday my eldest daughter and I were talking about social differences between girls and guys, how they handle their relational problems. I told her that it was my opinion that girls would get along better if they could punch each other in the face once in a while. Of course, that wouldn’t work because girls are not generally wired that way. But it works for guys. Some of my best friendships were with guys I had punched in the face, shoved against the wall, tripped onto their backs, or half-drowned in the pool over some perceived insult, some bluff called, or some threat I preempted.

What is actually strange (to women or mothers of boys at least) is that these little violences were more than often the portal to friendships. There was Aaron in Germany, John (now deceased) and Ronnie in England, Steve and Jeff in college, one of my bosses post-college in his kitchen, a school superintendent at a picnic, and a financial advisor at the same picnic (Yeah, financial "advisors" need their butts kicked). Fighting or wrestling or otherwise expending physical energy in feats of strength seems to help boys and men draw very tight boundaries around each other. So tight sometimes they make you inseparable. I recommend it every once in a while.

This past year I’ve been reading a series of books with a young man who almost offed his brother out of defense. Besides Sun Tsu's Art of War and Stephen Pressfield's Gates of Fire which we read later, I thought we would start off with The Epic of Gilgamesh, a very old Babylonian text so old the patriarch Abraham probably was familiar with it (seriously). I have been aware of the book for about thirty years, being exposed to it in elementary school, but I didn’t pick it up until twelve years ago and I’ve been teaching it for ten. The book reads clunky, probably because the culture gap between the Babylonians and Williamson County, Tennessee is so wide, hahaha. However, there has been much of the book that I, as a man, have intuitively understood more than the “pagan” or religious parts. The parts I understand are the healthy, masculine parts like Gilgamesh’ kicking Enkidu’s butt and breaking things in the process.

So when Gilgamesh (the half-god) and Enkidu the (half-man) first meet, Gilgamesh is on his way to make out with someone else’s wife (on their wedding night of all times). Enkidu is disgusted and outraged. He won’t let it happen, so he stops Gilgamesh at the city gate, blocking his way. Gilgamesh, being god, thinks he can do anything he wants. So he tries to cross the threshold and is surprised to find the shorter, squattier opponent taking him on. A phenomenal fight breaks out, and they are all over the place, breaking the gate posts, knocking into the walls and shaking them, grunting and snotting over each other as they go back and forth. With one definitive move (clearly illustrating a popular Babylonian grappling technique) Gilgamesh throws Enkidu onto his back. It's the ancient Babylonian pinning of the shoulders and the fight is over. But an interesting thing happens: Enkidu in the moral right actually admits defeat. That strategic and mature move abates Gilgamesh’ anger, and, get this, THEY BECOME BEST FRIENDS. 

As old as this story is, the psychology of this behavior is not hard to cipher. When men fight, they fight in order to dominate each other until a winner and a loser emerge. The loser cedes to the winner. Always. End of discussion. So, say, as has happened in my school before, two boys are fighting over, I don't know, Pokemon: one thinks the Diamond Version is better than the Pearl Version. They exhaust verbal debate, one insults the other, and a heated exchange takes place. A fight ensues and one boy bests the other. It is understood that the bested boy gives in. The besting determines (at least between the Diamond Version is now the preferred version (even if statistics prove the Pearl Version to be better). End of the story. 

In an encounter like this, you have all the elements of a relational disagreement: it’s just that the best punch to the face wins. And guess what? Both boys are fine with it, provided it was a fair fight. It is unfair for one boy to hit the other over the head with a skateboard when the other kid has no skateboard whereby he can defend himself. The outcome will not be agreed upon if no agreement on the mode of fighting has been agreed upon (Duels were only fair when both men agreed to the duel). What is important is that when a concession is made from the loser to the winner, it actually strengthens the bond between men. It creates tight boundaries, thereby drawing men in closer.

The U.S. military is perhaps the best example of this. Bootcamp serves to create and to strengthen this bond: shared physical labor, shared humiliation, shared responsibility, shared property, shared pride. In the end it somehow transforms a boy into a soldier or a marine or an airman or a sailor or whatever. In the case of military defense, it actually does the same for women. It is not by being relational through talking that this occurs. It is by being relational through physicality that this is best achieved. 

It is interesting that when Gilgamesh and Enkidu become best friends, Gilgamesh is apparently thwarted from being a butt and bothering the young brides (Yes, even the winner makes concessions). What beautifully happens is that they combine arms to do greater feats of strength, like dethroning the gods. 

Oh, I forgot to mention that point. There is some hubris involved in the masculine psychology of feats of strength.


  1. Excellent Insight! I am just now reading Wild at heart by John Eldridge. I am still at the beginning but this theme of men needing outlets of Wildness is ringing truer for me now that I am a father.

  2. enjoyed reading this. reminds me of the story of how Robin Hood & Little John became best of friends...

    "The stranger gave Robin a knock on the crown, Which caused the blood to appear, Then Robin enraged, more fiercely engaged, And followed with blows more severe. So thick and fast did he lay it on him, With a passionate fury and ire, At every stroke he made him to smoke, As if he had been all on fire."

  3. Hahaha @haddon... Yeah, can you imagine if Robin Hood and Little John just talked it out? It wouldn't have made an exciting story.


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