Dropping the Armor

My friend Will plays in a bare-bones tennis league called T2 where pairings and arrangements are handled by email, and matches take place on weekday evenings at venues of the participants’ choosing. This is in contrast to ALTA, a venerable Atlanta institution where competition is complemented by a social component that involves food, drink and post-match bonhomie.

Last week, Will and his partner had a match that was so important to them that they went out the night before and practiced. But they still lost, 6-3, 6-4, and two days later he was still stewing about it.

“They were in their 30s,” he said, disgusted. “They were all over the court, and the ball came back with heat on it.”

W is a powerful guy with a flat belly. He lifts weights, hikes and plays golf as well as tennis. He used to think he was pretty agile, but at 60 he admits that he can’t quite do the things he used to do. And despite his grin, you knew it bugged him.

I’ve talked to other men and listened to their grievances at the changes time has imposed on them.

Peter, a former high school and collegiate runner, gave up competitive running 20 years ago.  As he approached his 59th birthday, he still resented the loss. While his knees and back may keep him from competitive running – or any running at all, for that matter – anyone who has played golf with him can tell you that his competitive urge has not entirely deserted him.

Barry was also a competitive runner. He thinks he could still go out and run two miles if he had to, but at 53 he knows that the day will come when he will have to admit that he cannot.

But Barry, who is stock, genial and the soul of reason, has happily turned his attention to the things he can do. He plays the guitar, works in the yard, camps and, as I write this, is hiking a stretch of the Appalachian Trail.

Mike, a wiry builder in his mid-40s, is one of the most fearless people I’ve ever met. But not long ago he got rid of his 40-foot ladder and the scaffolding that went with it. “I couldn’t go up there any more,” he said. “My knees couldn’t handle it.”

And like Barry, Mike didn’t mind the change. “I’ve got so many other things going on in my life, and a lot of them are new things that I’m excited about.”

I was an athlete as a kid, and I played with an intensity that was unlike anything else in my life. Growing up in a strict, even repressive, family, playing sports was the only form of self-expression I had.

By the time I reached high school, the joy of competing was tinged with frustration and rage, and I channeled that into games. During one football game, I drew a bead on the opposing quarterback as he ran down the sideline, and as I slammed into his ribcage, my intention was to hurt him.

And I did. He had to leave the game, and didn’t return.

It’s nothing to be proud of, just a statement of fact. That’s where I was emotionally at 17.

In the years that followed, I attempted to overcome my inadequacies, real or perceived, by taking up everything from aikido and fire-walking to speed-reading and Zen. But nothing worked.

Finally, in the mid-’80s, I began doing anger-release work. It still comes up periodically, and when it does I do more work, and I find now that my competitive instinct is pretty low.

Personal work and spiritual study have taught me begin to lower my armor. I know now that my self-worth no longer depends on the outcome of a game, or the story I write, or in getting a part. I do the best I can, of course, but I’m much more interested now in connecting with others than with beating them.

As a member of a men’s group concerned with change and personal growth, I began to learn how to open up and connect with others. It’s early yet, and my conditioning made me a deeply distrustful person. So there’s a long way to go.

But the idea of dropping my armor has brought richness into my life and an affection for others I didn’t know was possible. There are probably a half-dozen men in the group with whom I would never have connected when I was younger. The warmth I feel for them – and for people in general – far outweighs the misery and selfishness I’ve had to give up.

And the best part is this is just the beginning.

To respond, click below on “Post a Comment.” To reach me directly, send an email to jc@johnchristensenonline.com.


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