December 11, 2018

How a Pacifist Became a Fighter

I have always been a man of peace—it’s been an important part of my identity for decades. My personal email signature has been a Native American prayer for peace since the early days of Gmail. I’ve never been in a fistfight. I became a Buddhist in my 30s—a peaceful alternative to the angry Christianity I grew up with. I’m a vegetarian because it’s a way to reduce suffering. And when I worked at Leo Burnett and we had to craft our own personal “brand essence,” I came up with “Clarifying Calm.”

“Oh, that’s perfect for you,” everyone said.

My preference for a peaceful path meshes nicely with my “Bias Toward Contemplation,” which I gather is NOT a tenet of Design Thinking. I have a tendency not to move until I’ve thought through what might happen when I get to where I’ve thoroughly thought about going. I’m definitely (and proudly) Spock to the many Captain Kirks I work with.


Until one day I encountered a situation that my peaceful, contemplative approach couldn’t accommodate. I made an appointment to talk to my doctor about a tremor in my right hand that was growing more pronounced. A referral to a neuro and a couple tests resulted in a quick diagnosis: Young Onset Parkinson’s disease.

A Parkinson’s diagnosis is problematic, to put it mildly. Parkinson’s doesn’t kill you, but it slowly erodes your brain’s ability to control your body’s voluntary and involuntary movements. You don’t die from Parkinson’s, my neurologist explained, but you’ll die with it—because there’s no cure.

I’m in good company. In the US, approximately 60,000 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s every year. I share my diagnosis with some amazing, inspiring people: Michael J Fox, Alan Alda, Charles Schultz, Salvador Dali, Linda Ronstadt, Mohammad Ali, and Chairman Mao (of all people). But I needed more than celebrities to deal with Parkinson’s.

An Unexpected Invitation

While reading about the LEAPs program, I came across the term “Bias Toward Action,” which I’ve since learned is an important idea in Design Thinking. It’s about “learning by doing and moving forward amidst complexity.” This resonated with something I had learned about Parkinson’s. While there’s no cure, and the best that meds can do is suppress symptoms, one thing that can slow its progression is rigorous exercise. Or as some people say, you’ve got to keep moving.

My neurologist had been encouraging me for about a year to sign up for an exercise program. It was designed to help participants develop and maintain all the movement skills Parkinson’s erodes: agility, speed, muscular endurance, accuracy, balance, hand-eye coordination, footwork, and overall strength.

The one reason I hadn’t signed up?

It was a boxing class. That didn’t mesh with my essence.

But in the interest of moving forward amidst the complexity of Parkinson’s, I decided to take a LEAP and see what happened.

I signed up to become a boxer.

The first thing I noticed about the Rock Steady Boxing program was that the coach, the physical therapists, and the volunteer trainers involved didn’t refer to us as patients, clients, customers, or even boxers— they called us fighters. It’s surprisingly empowering to hear that throughout each session. “Fighters, let’s get started” or “fighters, get your gloves on” or “fighters, take a break.” It’s a constant reminder of the purpose behind what we’re doing.

We’re not just a room full of people with at least one tremoring limb—we’re a room full of people fighting for control of our own bodies.

I also realized, as I had suspected, that my clever neurologist had really gotten me to sign up for was an exercise class. A hard one. Don’t get me wrong, I go to the gym a few-ish times a week, and I have a “routine” when I’m there. But our coach put us through some serious paces. During a modified rope climb the other day he shouted over my shoulder, “Keep going! This exercise is tough, Jason—but so are you!” And he was right, on both counts. Fighting requires toughness.

I’ve learned a fair amount about good boxing form (at least in theory). You have the 6 basic punches, proper boxing stance, and how to protect your face. I’m not particularly good at any of those yet, but I’ve only been doing it for 6 weeks. But more important than form, I’ve learned that fighting is fun.

Much to my surprise, what I like most about boxing is hitting things—hard. How often do we get to do that in real life? “No hitting!” seems to be one of the cardinal rules of the social contract. But laying into a heavy bag as hard as you can for a minute and a half feels good in a way I had never expected. Fighting feels good.

More than anything, taking a leap out of my peaceful comfort zone, learning-by-doing to be a fighter, has taught me a lesson about perspective. The Rock Steady Boxing program helps you understand this early on, during your first or second session, when every new fighter is asked to give themselves a new name—a fighting name. With what hopeful or powerful or silly name will you christen yourself as you learn how to fight for control of your own body?

The purpose of this is transparent: in a fight this big, a fight you’re probably completely unprepared for, it’s going to be important to see not just Parkinson’s, but yourself, in a new way. From here on out, if you’re so inclined, you may call me by my fighting name.

You may call me BamBam.

(Editor's note: Jason shared his LEAP at an Ei storytelling event earlier in the year. Watch his Leap Talk below:)

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