story | Reza Alam, Staff Writer

photo | Elesin Teo

My lungs were burning. My head hurt. Round One had just ended and the next round would start in less than a minute. In this momentary solace, I began to question, perhaps even regret: why had I agreed to participate in Yale-NUS College’s Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Biannual Fight Night? Perhaps there were better things to do than getting repeatedly punched by a trained opponent. But, by the end of the match, I did not regret my choice, because it made me, unlike most moments in my life, comfortable with who I was.

I wonder why going through so much physical pain allows me to be so much at ease mentally. While trying to answer this question over the winter break, I stumbled upon the works of the American psychologist Carl Rogers. In his book On Becoming a Person, he argues that there is a distinction between the self-concept (how we perceive ourselves) and the ideal self (the way we want to see ourselves). He proposes that if the gap between the two becomes too wide, our mental well-being will deteriorate.

I came to understand why most times, I do not feel at ease with who I am. There is a disconnect between the person I want to be and the perception I have of myself. A part of me wishes to become a courageous person, someone who can push himself to do things he is afraid of, but deep down I know that I am a coward.

I was raised, for most of my childhood, with stories of courageous people. I admired figures such as Saint Joan of Arc, who bravely said in a trial for which her life depended on, “concerning my revelations from God, these I have never told or revealed to anyone… And I will not reveal them to save my head”. I also look up to those like Nathan Hale, one of Yale University’s most celebrated alumni, who, before his hanging, managed to summon enough strength to utter “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”.

You may argue that the French had no more moral high ground than the English during the Hundred Years’ War or that Nathan Hale had views that many of us today would find ethically repulsive. However, there is something inspiring about those, who, despite their fears, sacrificed their lives for a cause they believed in. I am not one of those people. I have values and causes I care about, but to what extent would I courageously go to defend them? I do not know.

Upon reflection, I realized there are many moments in my life when I acted cowardly. I remember walking around Oxford on a cold afternoon when I bumped into a mother with her two boys begging for money. She said she needed it to feed her kids. Despite my belief in the need for altruism, I refused to give her some spare change and politely lied by saying that I was out of money myself. I did it because I would rather spend the five pounds I had left for a cab ride back to my dormitory. I was too afraid of getting hypothermia to brave the cold wind. My values disappeared at the slightest inconvenience.

However, I was presented with another challenge. I always felt, aside from that one incident at Oxford, that there are not that many opportunities for me to be courageous. Indeed, according to the Canadian political scientist Waller Newell, citizens in many modern democratic republics are often robbed of the occasions and the sense of fulfillment to exercise valor that exist in abundance in times of revolution and war. However, one has to only look at pictures of battlefield injuries to realize why it is probably a good thing that, according to the British historian Ian Morris, the number of violent deaths and conflicts around the world are at an all-time low.

People such as myself, who aspire to follow in the footsteps of Saint Joan of Arc or Nathan Hale, are forced (thankfully so) to look for other outlets to exercise courage aside from war. For me, that outlet is MMA. In many senses, being in MMA requires tolerating a lot of pain. From receiving blows to getting choked, one has to be comfortable with constant physical discomfort. Hence, while there are other ways one can exercise courage in modern society, MMA is definitely one of them.

After each fight, the gap between my self-concept and my ideal self narrows. I momentarily reinvented myself. I conquered my fears by taking those punches. For that, I became slightly more courageous. Inspired by the words of Stephen Crane, one of America’s most prolific realist writers, I had slept and, awakening, found myself a knight.  

My courage may not yet be in the service of some greater value like that of Saint Joan of Arc or Nathan Hale. Still, I now know that I have the capacity inside of me to endure pain and discomfort. Therefore, if an occasion arises where the greater good needs me to be courageous, I know I can do it.

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