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The Boxer’s Child Paradox


By Chris O’Connor

The psychology of fighters and boxers is something which has captivated people for years. I’ve long been fascinated by what drives them to succeed in the ring and what gives them the strength to endure such physical hardships. I’ve read about them, watched them, and listened to hundreds of hours of boxers talking about what makes them who they are. One of the interesting things that I’ve noticed is that many of the boxers cite their resilience as being forged from tough backgrounds and broken homes. Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield, to name a few, all came from incredibly tough backgrounds. These experiences helped give them the strength to face whatever comes at them in the ring and get back up, no matter what.  The resilience they fostered gave them the drive to succeed and bounce back from whatever life throws at them. It is a strength, an asset and a weapon. It has set them apart in life and allowed them to succeed.

At the same time, many of those fighters who have gone on to become parents have also said that they don’t want their children to go through what they did. They don’t want them to suffer as a child in the same way, to see and experience the pain they had. They want to provide a better life for their children. And why wouldn’t they? It’s what all good parents desire for their offspring.

However, this appears to create a paradox: to value gaining strength from a tough childhood but not wanting your children to endure a tough upbringing. How do we resolve this? We want to have resilience but don’t want to let our children endure needless suffering to cultivate it.

Yet, as the Buddha said, life is suffering. It is an intrinsic part of our existence. And life will come at you whether you want it to or not. Sickness, loss, pain and failure will come to us all, regardless. So it is surely better to be prepared in order to soften the harsh blows that will inevitably face us. There are two potential avenues that I believe we can pursue to help deal with this conflict.

Firstly, we can learn from situations of suffering. This could be in creating artificial suffering – scenarios where you are forced to suffer but which you can overcome. This could be anything from sports, hikes, camping, etc. Anything which can get you to a place of discomfort but which you can deal with and begin to grow a strength to overcome. Also, as mentioned, life presents many moments that test us, so use these as opportunities. If there is a power cut, or the boiler breaks down, or you are stranded at an airport – these are all moments where we can learn how to cultivate resilience and deal with what is put in front of us.

And secondly, we can try to instil in our children the tools to be prepared to deal with the suffering life throws at us. The most effective tools I have found in life have been forged from the hardest moments. I only searched for these tools when things were at their worst internally, but it doesn’t have to be like this. After suffering from post-concussion syndrome and OCD for a sustained period, I learned the benefits of therapy, mindfulness, and getting good sleep. These all helped enormously, and I often thought how different the same challenges I had faced would be if I were already using these tools. Other tools that people have gained strength from are things such as faith in a higher power, having a clear purpose in life and wanting to be an inspiration for those close to us.

Mindfulness, in particular, is an incredibly powerful practice. If mindfulness was part of the curriculum, we could give our children proactive tools to help buffer against the pain our minds can inflict on us. And often, it is our minds which create the most suffering for us. And more often than not, it causes us to suffer over things that may never even happen. These tools can again lessen the impact of testing times and can, if the Buddhist path is to be believed, help us overcome unnecessary suffering altogether. As Hamlet says, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Now it is worth adding some caveats to all of the above. There is a danger of falling into the trap of survivor bias by only focusing on those who have achieved success. A harsh upbringing, and childhood neglect, can cause lifelong mental health issues – this is not a desirable state by any means. And in fact, having a loving, supportive environment that understands the value of resilience is probably the healthiest way to generate it. And we also must consider that people like to create a narrative around their lives, and self-reporting isn’t an accurate barometer of what makes someone who they are. Yet none of these points takes away from the tangible benefits resilience gives us.

The approaches suggested may never replicate the same levels of resilience of being forced to endure but getting through really hard experiences, but if done often enough, they can help to grow the muscle of resilience. This can somewhat prepare us for the harsh realities of life, which will inevitably come. For example, the pandemic was a global trauma that has affected and still is affecting billions of us. Similarly, the current cost-of-living crisis is another incredibly challenging period for many people right now.

Sadly, these times will be too much to bear for some, and there is a wider point to be examined about how our institutions have failed in these moments. Still, anything we can do to encourage people to adopt tools to safeguard against the worst times is surely an act of self-preservation and kindness. To retake the boxer’s child analogy, I wouldn’t want future generations to have to go through a similarly devastating pandemic or as severe a cost-of-living crisis. However, I do want them to have the tools and resilience to face whatever comes at them.