Masters of Badassery
(Hi, Echo readers. This isn't really a proper response to anything, just a reaction of sorts to the badass/bad boy thing that's been tossed around.) I like to think that "badass" and "bad boy" are far from synonymous. If you don't agree with the following First Premise, then just stop reading, because you're beyond help: Bruce Lee was a badass. Some reasons for this evaluation are obvious. In youth, he frequently got into street fights. As an adult, he defined the martial arts superman in movies like "Way of the Dragon." By all accounts he was freakishly strong, blindingly fast, insanely skilled, a master of his every muscle. He said things like: "Forget about winning and losing; forget about pride and pain. Let your opponent graze your skin and you smash into his flesh; let him smash into your flesh and you fracture his bones; let him fracture your bones and you take his life. Do not be concerned with escaping safely--lay your life before him."
But the crown jewel of Lee's badassery was not his ability to hit you in eight places at once. It was his serenity. He was so damn good because of the discipline and psychic endurance his endless training required. His fighting philosophy was steeped in Daoism and Buddhism. He said martial artists should be "like water," because "water can flow or it can crash." And he wrote that art (martial or otherwise) was "work of enlightenment...a technique for acquiring liberty...developed by reflection within the soul."
These things accentuated and adorned rather than tainted his fighting prowess. Lee never needed to defy polite society to be a badass. He just worked really (REALLY) hard at what he loved.
Pursuing "complete mastery of techniques," not bloodlust, was why Lee loved and taught martial arts. He found such self-mastery to be the truest expression of who he was, and others followed suit--like current contestants on "The Ultimate Fighter," the mixed martial arts reality show.
Kimbo Slice, an erstwhile street fighter and YouTube sensation who looks like he was hewn from granite and once practically punched a professional opponent's ear off ("It was flappin' at me," he told Jimmy Kimmel), was part qualified contestant, part casting stunt. One might reasonably expect him to be arrogant and obnoxious, maybe even cruel. Turns out he's friendly and low key. Humble, too, well aware of his weaknesses, eager to learn, praised as "very coachable." He considers himself "a fighting contractor" (as in construction worker, not mercenary), hoping to acquire as many tools for his figurative belt as possible.
Then there's Marcus Jones, former NFL lineman and the biggest, strongest guy on the show, who laughs with disconcerting giddiness whenever he learns a new fighting technique. His hobby? Gardening. When another contestant expressed bemusement, Jones said, "Naw, man, it's about the joy of helping another living thing grow."
While badassery has many forms (like the Arkansas 10-year-old who refuses to say the pledge of allegiance in class because his family has lots of gay friends whose rights he's seen dishonored), we should all be able to agree that if a 230 plus pound barehanded gladiator isn't badass, no one is. And nothing--not gardening, not reading a prayer before a fight or doting on one's ill wife as other contestants do--could possibly diminish that fact of badassery.
Conclusion: being awesomely dangerous and being centered, good-hearted and deeply thoughtful are not at all mutually exclusive.
Don't get me wrong; I like the occasional dose of contempt as much as any fan of "House M.D." My favorite philosopher is Friedrich Nietzsche, and it's possible that a more contemptuous man never lived. But in public he was unfailingly polite, and he earned (or balanced out, if you prefer) his vain, disdainful attitude with intelligence, insight and intellectual courage of the highest order.
The true badass doesn't cultivate an artificial aura of badassery; he (or she) cultivates independently useful traits--strength, skill, will, self-knowledge, self-mastery--that naturally produce that aura.
[PS: I know this is weird, but in other news, I'm trying to plan an extended visit to the Hill. As an alternative to a hotel, someone suggested hopping around campus. Anyone I know willing and able to have me crash in a common room for a night or two?]