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On Being Punched in the Gut

ST-TNG_TapestryStar Trek: the Next Generation, season six, episode fifteen. Captain Jean Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise is engaged in one of his many adventures when suddenly his mechanical heart fails, and, in shock, he falls unconscious. Then, somewhere between a dream and the great beyond, the captain finds himself in the company of the extra-dimmensional trixter, the enigmatic, all-powerful Mister Q, an old antagonist of the captain. Q asks the captain how he was able to come to such a pitiful demise, and the captain recounts the story when, as a young officer in the star fleet, he got in a brawl with some alien thugs, who stabbed him in the heart, thus requiring the use of an artificial organ. Reliving the moment, we see young Jean Luc Picard receive the terrible blow, fall to his knees, and, with the brashness of youth, laugh at his own misfortune.

How could he do that? I marveled. Could I ever be so courageous?

Though it’s a painful vision for the older Jean Luc, not only from the memory of steel piercing his flesh, but from seeing the naive, arrogant, young man he once was in contrast to the well-behaved and logical man he’d become.

Not so long ago, after taking a personality test, I discovered that I had a lot in common with the captain. In fact, according to the test, I scored one-hundred percent on “thinking” and zero on “feeling.” This revelation surprised my friends, who seemed to have the idea that a “thinker” couldn’t have possibly been responsible for some of my less that intelligent antics over the years. But to set the record straight, thinking in no way necessitates intelligent thinking.

My wife, on the other hand, scored one-hundred percent “feeling” and zero percent “thinking.” The contrast makes for some interest dynamics. Anyway, like the captain, as soon as I had this realization, I found myself reliving my past, and I was ashamed.

First grade, nineteen-ninety. I was walking home from school with my friends, when we discovered a new boy in the neighborhood. He lived with his grandma, and he was home schooled. He was different. So we did the only logical thing: we made fun of him. Drawing from our rich, first grade vocabulary, we called him a poo poo head. It was good fun. And as a one-hundred-percent thinker and zero percent feeler, it never occurred to me that we might be hurting his feelings. I just thought this was how young boys were supposed to act.

A few days later, we were passing the boy’s house again, and there he was. “Look,” I said, “it’s the poo poo head.” But to my confusion, my buddy Ryan replied, “Actually, he’s our friend now. We got to know him when you weren’t there, and he’s a cool kid.” This was very confusing. First he’s a poo poo head, now he’s our friend? I couldn’t make sense of this illogical paradox. Perhaps it was something only a “feeler” could understand.

I always knew I wanted to be a hero and a leader, like the captain, and from a tender age, I was well-trained. That is, like every other boy and girl, I spent my after school hours watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Of course, most kids did much more than watch, they would play Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But I wasn’t like most kids. From the beginning, I was an original, an authentic. My friends and I played Teenage Mutant Ninja Monkeys. Hour after hour, day after day, the ninja monkeys would fight an inexhaustible supply of invisible bad guys with our inexplicable knack for martial arts. Someday, we imagined, we would fight real evil.

Jump ahead to the fourth grade, when the time had come. My buddy Luke and I were tired of dreaming our lives away, so at night, we snuck out of his parents’ house and roamed the neighborhood streets. I was wearing a black cloak, and Luke was wearing a black trench coat. We were the “Bad Guy Patrol.” As soon as we found a bad guy, we just knew that we’d be able to do defeat him with our inexplicable knack for martial arts.

We never did find any bad guys. Though at church, the next Sunday, I overhead Sister Johnson, who lived right next to Luke, talking about some suspicious characters she’d seen wearing black clothes. She said that everyone should lock their doors and that she’d contacted the police’s neighborhood watch program. I couldn’t believe the irony. We, the bad guy patrol, were mistaken for bad guys! It made no sense. Perhaps it was something only a feeler could understand.

In fifth grade, I fought my first real battle against evil as personified by the mortal enemies of all young boys: girls. The fact that girls were our enemies had always been self-evident, as intrinsic as my knowledge that the home-schooled boy was a poo poo head. So I didn’t need any motivation, let alone justification, when I led a charming army of twenty boys toward a playground full of unsuspecting girls. Many innocent girls were pushed over that day. I myself pushed over the chief girl: Jill Metcalf. I’m not certain how, exactly, I knew she was the chief girl. It must have been another one of those self-evident truths. And as I pushed her onto the chalky gravel, it never occurred to me that I might be hurting her feelings.

Then one day I got my comeuppance. You see, I was taught how to feel, and I was taught well. My family lived by a middle school, and behind the middle school was a big, glorious wilderness we affectionately called Big Rock. The reason for the name was that within the heart of Big Rock was a very big rock. Every last inch of it was covered in graffiti, for this was no man’s land, a home to delinquents, anarchists, and teenagers. Another prominent feature was the old, abandoned house. Most of it had been weathered away, long ago. Now it was the home to a scary, old hermit that ate children. So my older brother and sister told me, and, of course, they knew.

Anyway, one day my buddies and I were walking through Big Rock, hopping across the large stones in the river and having a grand time in the great, unsupervised outdoors, when we encountered a group of boys we’d never met. And just as I knew with the poo poo head and with Jill Metcalf, I knew that these boys needed to be made fun of. Again, it had never occurred to me that I was anything short of a hero, but when one is incapable of feeling, as I’ve already said, one doesn’t always think intelligently.

So I called them Snuffleupagus brains and other eloquent inventions as my buddies and I held our territory. Because, so I thought, that was what boys were supposed to do. There were plenty of bigger kids around, so I felt safe. The new boys did nothing but walk away.

But on the way back to my house, we realized that our new-found rival gang was following us … on bicycles. There was no outrunning them, so again we held our ground as we were surrounded. “You,” said the gang leader, “you’re the guy who was making fun of us.” Two of the boys seized my arms while the gang leader put on some brass knuckles. I looked to my friends for help, but they just cowered in the background.

Come on, I thought, where’s your inexplicable knack for martial arts?

Truth be told, I wasn’t feeling it either. As only a moment like this could truly reveal, I had absolutely no idea how to fight, and these guys were scary. So I did the one thing I could: I took it like a man. Locking eyes with my soon-to-be puncher, I said, without any words, “Bring it on.” And he did.

Bam! A cold, hard punch to the gut. It hurt. A lot. They say that, in my moments like these, one’s life flashes before his eyes. But the only thing flashing before my eyes was Star Trek: the Next Generation, season six, episode fifteen. I thought of the courageous captain with a knife through his heart, and do you know what I did? I laughed.
This made my puncher mad, so he hit me a second time, harder than before. And though it took me a moment to regain my wind, I, in turn, laughed harder. Now he was really mad, and exerting his full body, he drove those brass knuckles into my gut for a third and final time. The heavy blow drained the strength from my being, and for a moment I saw stars. But determined to prove myself a starship captain in the making, I drew in air, and, despite the pain, forced my wheezing diaphragm to laugh one more time.

Apparently feeling that justice had been dealt, the boys got back on their bikes and rode off. As my buddies and I walked back to my parents’ house, I limping a bit, a single thought stayed in my mind: “I deserved it.” But the story didn’t end there. We were almost to the backyard gate when we saw one of the boys riding toward us on his bicycle. We were paralyzed with fear.

He pulled right up to us. “Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” we replied.

“Have you guys seen my friend anywhere? The one with the blue hat?”

We shook our heads.

“All right, well, see you later.” And then he rode off. The unexpected interchange was so short, so casual, so non-confrontational, it was almost as if we were … friends. My thinking brain couldn’t make sense of it. This was one of the guys who had just assisted in my brutal beating. Guys like us and him aren’t supposed to ask each other for favors.

Then something happened within me. Maybe it was a change of heart, or maybe it had something to do with a badly bruised abdomen. But whatever it was, I felt for the guy. I realized that even very different kinds of people can be friends. Poo poo heads, girls, and even bullies like me.

From that time onward, as Captain Jean Luc Picard also realized, as great as it is to be a cold, hard thinker with a mechanical heart, a little feeling doesn’t hurt. Unless you’re feeling brass knuckles in the gut. Then it can hurt a lot.

Anyway, the captain got a second chance, and so did I. You’ll be glad to know that from my most recent personality test, I scored two-percent on feeling, a whopping two-percent increase. So when my wife needs a listening ear as she talks about her emotions in a completely non-problem-solving, purely empathetic, judgment-free environment, to some infinitesimal degree, I almost understand. As for the rest of the time, I’m more than content to be a cold, calculating captain of mixed heroics, boldly going where no feeler has gone before.

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