I guess the reason they call it a sucker punch is because you have to be kind of a sucker to fall for it.
It was boxing week at The Academy Day Camp. This was not an ordinary after school day camp, but one for boys who were a little out of step with their peers. Each week we were given some basic athletic instruction and then thrust into various sports -- the idea being (I presume) that with a little macho nurturing some latent native ability stored in our Y chromosomes would manifest and we would, if not shine, then at least not come home from school with a shiner, as so often some of my camp mates had. (In general I fared a little better, socially. Early on I had learned the power of funny-mean, so while I was definitely out of step with my peers, I didn't have quite the bully bullseye painted on my forehead that some of my companions seemed to).
Thus I stood, maybe 12 years old, in one corner of the ring, the boxing gloves on my hands feeling like over-achieving oven mitts, nervously eying my opponent across the canvas (thinking for the umpteenth time that I'd rather be at the library). My opponent made me nervous not because he was bigger than I was, but because he was smaller, and I was afraid I would hurt him. I was not a particularly physically aggressive child, so this fear was an unfamiliar one.
The counselor gave a little lecture about fair play and good sportsmanship. I looked over the other boys standing outside the ring, with expressions ranging from boredom to relief that they weren't one of the ones about to box.
In our shadow boxing session earlier that afternoon it turned out that I had a quick left jab and what promised to be an excellent right hook, and so, plucked from the chorus line of boys listlessly flailing at their shadows on the wall, I was thrust center stage and about to make my big boxing debut -- against a boy somewhat smaller than I.
I kept waiting for someone to point that out, or during the portion of the counselor's little speech about fair play for someone to say, "hey, wait, what about ...?" but no one did. My mind was already blown by standing in a boxing ring with gloves on and mere seconds from a fight, so there was no way I could summon the wherewithal to bring it up myself.
They rang a little bell, and I remember it sounded like the ring of every cliche boxing bell you've heard in every movie ever made: Ding!
And we just stood there.
"Go on!" the counselor yelled.
We moved towards the middle and began jabbing at each other.
"Cheer them on!" the counselor hectored our fellow campers, who, somewhat unsure as to what constituted a boxing "cheer" exactly, fell back on that old school yard stand-by, "Fight!"
"Fight! Fight! Fight!" was what they were aiming for, but it was not a rousing chorus, as no doubt some of them were suffering mild post traumatic flashback episodes of being roughed up at recess while a gang shouted that very thing, so try as they might to get a good chant going, it came out more like "Fi... fi ... fi..." the word dying on their lips after each fresh utterance. "Fi ... fi ... fi..." it was like Jack's giant but with a sad stutter.
I hit him a good one, and he stepped back and bent over, holding his gloves over his face as if he were hurt.
I freaked out. The boys stopped chanting. I waited for the counselor to go over to him ... and waited ... and waited ... I looked from the counselor to the boy, back and forth... the counselor stood there, watching. Impassive. Making no move at all.
So I went over to my opponent, worry making my voice tight and high: "Hey, are you ...?"
And he popped up and clocked me He'd been faking. Playing possum to draw me in.
My memory of this next part is crystal clear:
The counselor thought this was hilarious. He roared with laughter.
I thought we were done, but the counselor urged us back to it.
Jab-jab-jab-jab-jab Pow! I connected again.
And again he backed off, holding himself and acting hurt.
This time I wouldn't be fooled. I waited... and the boy stayed in his "I'm hurt" posture.
The counselor still didn't do anything. He stood there watching, again impassive, making no move to help, and the other boy remained hunched.
"What if he was really hurt this time?" I thought "What if I really hurt him? What if he really needed help and everyone was thinking he was faking but we were all wrong and now he ..."
I'll end your misery: I am a sucker. I am the sucker the punch was named for.
He out-waited me, and I finally grew more worried than cautious, and he repeated his pop-and-clock move, met with even greater hilarity from the counselor.
The rest of the afternoon has faded in my memory over time, but that incident ... I've been ashamed of that for years. What a dupe. What a fool. What a rube. What a stupid, stupid sucker. How weak, right? After all, the old saying is a good one, "Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me." Shame on me, in me and dogging me.
And the fact that it happened when I was a child just made the memory more painful as an adult, as if it revealed some deep-seated flaw in my manhood, in my intelligence, in my ability to judge and survive.
And you know what? Maybe it does. After all, there is no point in this story where I can tell you that I don't think what happened in the ring that afternoon doesn't show me as a true sucker.
Some "old ideas" about ourselves are old. Deeply entrenched.
"You're a sucker, Mr. SponsorPants."
Yes, I am. But suddenly it means something very different to me.
Here is how prayer and service heal me:
I have been praying for fresh eyes to see myself more clearly, to understand my character defects more deeply and be relieved of them more fully. And I've been praying hard.
And recently I was talking with a sponsee about something from their childhood which deeply shamed them. Unbidden, this memory of what a sucker I was from so long ago came to me, and I shared it with my sponsee. Our conversation went on, we felt the camaraderie of people working to let go of old hurts, we looked at how the tools AA offers can help do that.
My sponsee went on their way, and later that night, there I was, praying hard.
"My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to You and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do Your bidding, Amen."
(For the new kids, that's the 7th Step Prayer from the book "Alcoholics Anonymous," AA's Big Book, and you can find it on pg. 76.)
The next morning, in the shower, I was thinking about that old boxing match, and all that it meant to me, and how in the back of my mind it had always been a symbol of what a stupid sucker I can be.
And out of nowhere, ripping this old idea to shreds and casting it away, came this thought:
"Okay. Fine. You're a sucker. But maybe that doesn't mean you're stupid. Maybe it means that you care more about not hurting people than you do about your own ego. Maybe instead of revealing a fundamental bad thing about yourself, it actually reveals a fundamental good?"
I was thunderstruck at this revolutionary idea.
Now, if you don't believe in God, that's fine, you don't have to to get sober, and you might just think this:
"Huh, well Mr. SponsorPants, it seems to me that your subconscious and your desire to see yourself differently partnered in your sleep to come up with a new idea which was a salve to your ego after all these years." Okay, maybe that's true. I'll take my relief and insights however I might come to them.
If you do believe in God, then may I offer that you might think this:
"Wow. A completely new thought -- practically alien to your old thinking, really -- coming as it did with such a profoundly different viewpoint, particularly against the backdrop of this very deeply grooved -- lifelong even -- belief system. Mr. SponsorPants, you might consider that Divinely inspired, and perhaps an answer to some of that hard hard praying you've been doing."
I work diligently at my faith, but you don't have to poke around the blog too much to see that some days it is rich and alive and a buoyant force keeping me aloft, and other days the prayers are like sand in my mouth and I am overcome with grim despair and a sharp antipathy towards any idea of a Higher Power.
So some days I'll probably think the former about this, and other days (quite a bit more of the Faith Days, I suspect for a while) I'll think the latter.
But regardless, what has happened to me is that through service, prayer and reflection (which is just what meditation calls itself on Casual Fridays) an old wound has healed, and an old shame has alchemized into something very different. I look at that boy in the boxing ring and I am actually proud to have been him -- proud to have been that kind of sucker.
To have but a few profoundly new and fresh thoughts in mere moments wash away the rotten bile of almost a lifetime's self loathing ... well, some miracles are quiet ones, and no one else need be convinced of them but you, yourself. Today I feel touched by a small miracle. Very small, but no less miraculous.
We are transformed through Alcoholics Anonymous in ongoing, unexpected ways.
From the book "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions" pg. 79:
"Very deep, sometimes quite forgotten, damaging emotional conflicts persist below the level of consciousness. At the time of these occurrences, they may actually have given our emotions violent twists which have since discolored our personalities and altered our lives for the worse."
My experience is that in AA I continue to discover these things and be healed.
It still works if I still work it.
And this healing, this ongoing miracle of relief and recovery, is available to anyone reading this, anyone who wants it, if they but follow AA's very simple path.
If this sucker can keep doing it, then I wager pretty much anyone can.