Butts Up

When I was around 12 years old, I came upon a game being played by a group of boys from the neighborhood. They invited me to play with them, telling me that the game was called butts up. I didn’t know how to play, so they briefly explained the rules. It’s a fairly simple game played with a single ball (like a tennis ball or racketball) thrown against a wall. It didn’t sound too complicated, and I liked games, so I figured I’d give it a try.

What they didn’t explain at the time was the penalty for making a mistake three times. Since I was new to the game, I didn’t have any issues with taking some extra risks, so of course I was the next person to make this particular mistake thrice.

The penalty as they informed me, was to get down on all fours facing the wall with your butt facing towards the other boys. Then the boys line up perhaps 15-20 feet back, taking turns hurling the ball at your ass as hard as they could, until each boy had a chance to throw.

When they first told me this penalty, I thought they must be joking since I’d never encountered a game with a rule like that. But multiple boys assured me that was indeed the rule. I didn’t want to lose face, so I went along with it and decided to just deal with the penalty and get it over with, even though I was definitely scared.

The ball they used was hard – harder than a tennis ball – so of course it stung badly each time I was hit. There were about a dozen boys in the group, and unfortunately many of them had good aim. I tried not to, but by the time it was over I was crying, which was even more embarrassing than incurring the penalty. I was probably crying after the first couple of hits, but of course I couldn’t quit because well… rules are rules.

I opted out of the game after that and didn’t keep playing. My sore butt had had enough.

If you’re finding this game objectionable, I can’t disagree with you. I imagine this game was more popular during the 80s than it is today.

Sometime later that year, however, I re-engaged with the game and would play it now and then with the same boys. However, I’d play extra conservatively to ensure that I’d never make the kind of mistake that would result in that painful penalty. I could still have some fun with it, but I played super tight. I played not to get penalized. And for a long time I succeeded. In all the time I played the game, I don’t think I ever got penalized again.

Other boys eventually joined the group and played butts up now and then as well. One time I saw a boy who was a year or two younger than me earn himself the penalty. I immediately felt sad for him, believing it to be the first time this happened to him.

Unlike me, however, he was aware of the penalty since he’d seen other boys go through it. He strolled up to the wall, got down on all fours, and then began wagging his butt at the line of boys like a dog wagging its tail.

As boy after boy hurled the ball at his rear, he taunted and teased people to hit him. Most missed, but even when the ball hit him square, he gave up and “Ow! That smarts!” reaction, and then he went right back to wiggling and taunting – and laughing!

I was shocked. How could he go through that experience for the first time seemingly with no fear and no tears? I was sure that a few throws must have stung, but he didn’t let it show. He took the pain and shrugged it off. He was having way too much fun daring people to hit him if they could.

I still played the game with this group on occasion over the next year or two. I saw a myriad of reactions from people receiving the penalty, some much like mine, some like the other boy, and everything in between.

One factor that seemed to make a meaningful difference was knowing what to expect. When I was penalized the first time, I’d never seen that penalty before, so I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t sure how to react to getting penalized or to getting hit. My imagination made the pain worse. The emotional aspect of the experience was at least as bad as the physical pain.

It sucks to be penalized in this way, but it’s not as bad when you’ve already seen other people go through it before you. By the time it’s your turn, you’ve seen a variety of reactions. And this gives you options for choosing how to respond.

Sometimes life will whack you in the ass, and it will sting. If you never expect this to happen, and it surprises you out of the blue, that can make the whole experience way worse because you feel unprepared for it.

But if you recognize that life sometimes throws hard objects at you, and you learn from other people who’ve been through such experiences, that can be empowering. You feel like you have some options for choosing how to respond.

When I was going through a bankruptcy in 1999, I went to a seminar from another guy who’d also gone bankrupt, and I learned a good way to frame it as a second chance and a financial reset. So instead of taking 10 years to recover, I’d rebuilt my credit pretty well and essentially recovered from it within 2 years, so it wasn’t nearly as big of a deal at it initially seemed.

When I went through a marital separation 10 years after that (to be followed by a divorce), I learned from others who’d gone through similar experiences. One friend said to me, “You completed your marriage,” which was an excellent way to frame it.

There are lots of ways to make mistakes and incur penalties. We can be blindsided and overwhelmed by emotion when that happens. Or we can recognize that we have options for how to deal with adversity, and we can shake our butts at it and laugh it off.

While learning possible responses to specific setbacks can be helpful, the real skill is to generalize this approach by thinking about how you’d like to respond to any kind of adverse situation. Which values would you like to express when you’re in the penalty box?

Sometimes the best response is to retain your sense of humor, taunt the forces that would beat you down, and do your best to laugh it off. Then get back on your feet, and re-engage with the game of life.

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