This week I drink chai with a man who used to beat people to a pulp for a living, to see if he knows how to make life better.*
There’s this thing I’ve been doing for a while now. Every fortnight I invite an interesting stranger to share a cup of tea or a wine, so I can learn more about how this mortal coil spins. It’s not as creepy as it sounds. One time it might be an academic I admire. The next a disagreeable blogger I want to understand better, or a work contact I’ve only ever dealt with via email who I keep saying I should actually meet some time. Some time never happens, of course, unless you got off your bum.
I’ve had to be careful I don’t come across as a stalker, but mostly the very audaciousness of my asking to meet with people because I reckon they’re interesting gets me over the line. They’re flattered, but also curious. And aren’t we all by other people’s stories?
This week I met with Paul Briggs, the former world champ kickboxer and world Light Heavyweight contender. I’d read his biography a while back and was blown away. Following a traumatic childhood he got entangled in drugs and crime, but went on to fight out his anger in rings worldwide, winning 83 out of 91 fights. He’d also seen The Notebook (several times) and when I rang was reading Women Who Run with the Wolves, because he thinks “every dad should understand the potential power of his daughter” (his little girl is six). Definitely interesting.
So there we were, sharing soy chai from pretty heirloom china cups in a bookshop café down the road, Regina Spektor and Cat Stevens being sentimental in the background. If you’ve ever met a tattoo-festooned boxer you’d get that this was quite a fabulous juxtapositioning of visuals and effect.
Paul is brutally open about the pain he’s felt fighting for a living. He fell into it, he was good at it, he kept going. But eventually the sustained violence took its toll. “I spent 12 months sitting in a café torturing myself and asking, why did I end up doing this? Is this what my life is meant to be about?” Haven’t we all.
Here’s the thing – he quit boxing, became a trainer, and has launched mentor programs for teen boys that show them what “being a good bloke is about”. He also leads support groups for men geared at dropping macho ego, and is currently working on reality show The Contender (think Top Model with gloves on) as a trainer and “shoulder to cry on” for the competing boxers.
Amidst all this he’s discovered a gift. He can get gnarly, jammed-shut men to open up. “The meanest, toughest men trust me. I can coax them to talk about how they feel, often for the first time,” he says.
And bingo! The inspiring philosophical point that Paul brings to the planet. He expresses it best himself: “I think the reason I went through all this (the brutal vocation) was so I could help blokes get real, to be real men for their partners, their kids and their mates. This is possible only because I walked the walk first.”
I love it. I want to highlight his insight in fluorescent texta and hand it around to everyone I know. In Eastern philosophy, they call it dharma. Dharma, loosely translated, is your life purpose. It isn’t always the job you do, it might be how you do it, or what you do beyond it.
It might be inspiring wellness while working in a bank. My friend Kersti’s dharma is helping young female colleagues find their feet in the misogynist legal world, while working as a finance lawyer in New York. “I feel compelled to share what I learnt in my struggle, it’s weirdly become my path,” she says.
The path to one’s dharma is often a bumpy one because often you have to plunge to the dark depths yourself before you can shed light. Sharon Osbourne told Psychologies magazine this month that being ugly made her successful. That it was the very battle to make up for her lack of looks that honed her charm and smarts, thus delivering her life purpose. Is it any coincidence she went on to test other people’s grit on X Factor?
Happiness experts repeatedly tell us living your life’s purpose is the shortest cut to bliss. How do you find yours? I’ve found it helps to look at what you battle yourself, where the struggle within lies. That’s where true growth starts.