My hands are lethal weapons and I'm tempted to use them

Lately I have zero tolerance for crap, and that scares me.

Published December 2, 2004 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

Many years ago (late '80s) I had some trouble with some bullies at my school. In response I began taking tae kwon do. I trained through high school and began teaching martial arts myself in college and still do to this day. I'm not a violent person. Fact is, I don't think I've ever been in a "real" fight. I'm a remarkably nice unremarkable guy. Happy, too.

My problem is that lately I've developed zero tolerance for crap. Tomfoolery, nonsense, shit, incompetence; call it what you will, when exposed to it I knee-jerk in a very confrontational and aggressive way.

This started in my early 30s. I can remember being 20-something and being patient and understanding of other people's quirks and grating personalities. Not anymore. And the desire to nip 'em in the bud seems to get stronger every year.

Is this a common thing for men at this age? In this time we live in? I have, as far as I know, no desire to "prove" myself. If I want fighting I can get it any time I want at my tae kwon do school -- and I do. I get in the ring with my students, even the ones who are much better than I am. I'm not bragging, but trying to get across that I don't sit around watching other people take all the risks. Heck, I can go to other martial arts schools for more if I want. And I have.

Service industry employees and co-workers bear the brunt of this newfound antagonism. It worries me. And I don't even do it that much! Maybe four times a year at work I bite someone's head off -- six times in 2001, but he was a real jackass.

The worst part? Aggression works. Like a charm. Looking back over my adult life I can't help noticing that it always has. The bullies from high school? Found new sport after the littlest one got his nose bloodied. The other bullies in high school? After an in-class punch-up, one challenged me to a fight only to skip the last two weeks of class. The overbearing supervisor? She's working somewhere else now. The new supervisor who changed his evaluation procedures midyear? He's supervising another division now. Both threatened me with professional hellfire, both cut and run. I came through smelling like a rose (admittedly a thorny one).

But I worry that this hankering for conflict will spread from snarky waiters and office doofuses to my family and friends. This year I've found myself biting my tongue with those close to me in situations when I would have endured their shenanigans without complaint.

Am I on my way to becoming like the bullies who once terrorized me?

In the newfound chicken-hawk red-state culture I find myself in (Oklahoma) I fear that the opportunities and rewards for beat-downs (verbal and, eventually I assume, physical) will become too great to resist.

What the heck is going on?

Can't Argue With the Results

Dear Can't Argue With the Results,

Perhaps it will help you to sit calmly on the floor and remember why you got into tae kwon do in the first place. You were being bullied, weren't you? Your tormentors may have accused you of a trumped-up offense, and you may have protested that it wasn't true, but that didn't stop them, did it? You brushed up against one of them, or spilled your drink on him, or spilled your tray onto his shoes and failed to clean it up quickly enough. You wore the wrong clothes, or walked funny, or were too short or too tall or too fat or too skinny or lived in the wrong part of town and that was your offense. Maybe they thought you reminded them of a snarky waiter or an office doofus. So they bullied you.

It wasn't right but that didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was that it made them feel a little better to beat on you. It worked, so they did it. It made them feel less afraid, so they did it. The truth is that you were a good guy; you hadn't done anything to deserve being bullied. But the truth would have interfered with what they needed to feel. So they ignored the truth. Only when you learned tae kwon do did the truth confront them in a form they understood. Bullying you then had painful consequences and lost its appeal; it no longer worked for them, and so it stopped. They moved on to bully someone else who had not yet learned tae kwon do.

As you look back on this, you may tend to remember only that learning tae kwon do achieved its objective. That's hard to argue against. It worked.

But it only worked because it was the appropriate response to unfair aggression. You were being tormented and needed to protect yourself. You were not the aggressor. You were in the right.

Along the way, something happened. Perhaps what happened is that because of the stresses and disappointments of the adult world, and because of the unresolved conflicts and festering resentments that arise out of the daily friction of commerce and culture, you began to feel a kind of free-floating anger that attached itself to people whom you labeled snarky waiters and office doofuses. This alarms you, as it should; you sense correctly that labeling people is a way of removing their humanity so you can beat on them. So you have to back up a bit and remember that there is no such thing as a snarky waiter or an office doofus; there are just people like you and me trying to get through a day, trying to get home and take a bath and watch "The Apprentice" and "The Daily Show." There are just people whose jeans don't live up to our expectations, who walk like basset hounds and come from garbage town and eat like chimpanzees and drive rusty tractors and show off their goiters and scratch their beer bellies, who cut us off on the freeway and take 13 items into the 12-item express lane and deny our mortgage applications. That's just the way the world is. Any practitioner of the tae kwon do philosophy would tell you that. The world is full of annoyance. It doesn't live up to our expectations. That doesn't mean you get to use your unstoppable fighting technique on the rest of the world -- even if it works.

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