Tough guys. Who doesn’t love stories about tough guys? Bond. James Bond. D’Artagnan crossing swords with the Cardinal’s men. Matt Dillon standing up to a lynch mob. Emma Peel tossing the bad guy over her shoulder. Ripley taking on the alien. Buffy staking yet another vampire.
Heroes putting their lives on the line, and usually throwing in a smart remark. We can’t get enough of stories like that, or at least, I never could. But are these stories realistic? Are people really that tough?
Yeah, they are. Oh, the stories make everything more glamorous. I doubt that real secret agents are as sophisticated and cool as James Bond and Emma Peel. I’m sure more than one honorable sheriff who stood up to a lynch mob got killed. And while Buffy came back from the dead for the sake of the story, the history of slayers made it clear that their lives were usually very short. The bad guys win more often in real life.
But real people do put their lives on the line. And they even crack wise while doing it. Over on The Innocent Abroad, Jamie Lawrence provides an entertaining look at some of history’s original tough guys: The 300 Spartans who fought and died at Thermopylai. According to Jamie’s translation of Plutarch, when the Spartan King Leonides was told that the arrows of the enemy would be so thick they would block out the sun, he said, “Then, that’s great: we’ll fight them in the shade.”
To be a tough guy, you have to be willing to die. Or, as Musashi put it, “The way of the warrior is the resolute acceptance of death.” It’s hard to be a convincing tough guy if you’re trying to find the escape hatch at the same time.
Of course, smart tough guys don’t just run out and get themselves killed for no reason. It’s not against the tough guy ethic to use strategy. (Musashi was great at strategy — he’d show up early, or late, to duels, to put his opponent off balance.) In fact, my personal definition of a tough guy includes knowing how to avoid trouble. Usually it’s the wannabes who are spoiling for a fight; real tough guys don’t need to prove it.
I know some tough guys — people I’d like to have with me if I had to walk down a very dark alley in a very bad neighborhood, people who will jump in to stop another person from being attacked. People who will walk outside to fight when the monsters are at the door,
And while I don’t claim to have the courage of the Spartans (or Emma Peel, for that matter), I can think of at least one occasion when I’ve done the tough guy bit. I was coming out of the housing co-op where I lived, and ran into a young man trying to slip in the side door. He was a guy with a serious drug problem and he didn’t live there, though he knew people who did. Several of the older people in the building were terrified of him, and we had barred him from the premises.
I was alone, but I was damned if I was going to let that man in the building. I told him he had to leave. He tried to argue with me, but I held my ground. It helped that I was armed — I was on my way to karate class and had a six-foot staff in my hands; in fact, I dropped my bag on the ground so that I was free to move. I had the feeling he wanted to try something, to hit me, but he wasn’t going up against that staff. He finally left.
I don’t remember being especially scared at the time. I do remember feeling like I had a duty — as someone who trained in martial arts, as someone on the co-op board, as one of the younger residents in the building — to protect my neighbors from this man. I don’t think I was unaware of the danger, but I didn’t think about the consequences. I just thought it had to be done.
I think that’s what real tough guys do, for the most part: They do what they think has to be done. They’re just more willing than most to risk their lives while doing it.
In general, we think of tough guys as people who are willing to fight and kill. But some of the toughest of the tough take the risk of dying without killing. Gandhi, for example. Now there was a tough guy.
And perhaps my favorite tough guy story from fiction concerns the Zen monk Takuan Soho, as portrayed in Eiji Yoskikawa’s novel, Musashi. In the story, Takuan is talking to a samurai captain who has been taking advantage of his position. He has made the captain mad enough to draw his sword:
Takuan burst out laughing. “Does that mean you plan to cut off my head? If so, forget it. It would be a terrible bore.”
“A bore. I can’t think of anything more boring than cutting off a monk’s head. It would just fall to the floor and lie there laughing up at you.”
Needless to say, the captain didn’t cut off his head.
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