“You have to hit it harder, or it won’t break.”
Whack. Whack.
“That’s it.”

Oddly enough, the only time I remember having my nose broken, I was under sedation. The surgeon was coaching someone—A nurse? An intern?—in the finer points of facial reconstruction, and since I’d only had a local anesthetic and Sodium Pentothal, I heard the whole process. I couldn’t tell what they were hitting me with (I was, for once, smart enough to keep my eyes closed), but it felt like a tiny metal hammer. As I lay there, delightfully unconcerned thanks to the drugs, I imagined the doctor had a whole set of these, like miniature golf clubs, from which he selected according to the sort of bone he needed to break.

In my case, he needed to break the thin, flat pieces of bone that formed the sides of my nose, fracturing them where they joined the skull just below my eye sockets. This allowed him to fold the bone inward a bit, narrowing and reshaping the upper part of my nose to match the lower part, where he had carved away much of the cartilage. “Your nose is like a tent,” the doctor had told me when we discussed the surgery in his office. “We change the shape of it by working inside, like we’re moving the tent poles around.”

Sounded fine to me—no visible scars—but I hadn’t really considered that the tent poles were in fact bits of my own body, and that moving them around was not a strictly metaphorical process. Even when I heard the bones in my face breaking, the sedatives kept me from realizing the full import of the sound. It wasn’t until I woke up in the recovery room with two of the most impressive black eyes I hope I’ll ever have, that it really sank in: My face now had moving parts where it wasn’t supposed to.

It was a bit of a jolt, and yet that probably wasn’t the first time I’d had my nose broken (it certainly wasn’t the last). When, as a teenager, I began to suffer regularly from sinus infections, tonsillitis, nosebleeds, mononucleosis, and a general feeling that I wished I were dead, the doctor sent me to an ear, nose, and throat specialist who immediately zeroed in on my nose.

“Has your nose ever been broken?” he asked as he turned my jaw this way and that and squinted appraisingly at me. I rummaged in my memory, replaying the tapes of all the times I’d fallen off horses, remembering the ground rushing up at me; the blur as I landed and lost my glasses and rolled, or skidded, or bounced. I didn’t distinctly remember any damage to my nose, but that was probably because after I got my glasses back on, the first order of business was always catching the horse, and that sometimes took quite a while. But I did remember that my glasses, which sat on my nose, invariably got mangled by the impact and had to be bent back into a wearable shape.

“It’s possible,” I admitted to the ENT.

Then my mother, upon hearing the doctor’s suspicions about my nose, revealed a fascinating piece of my health history. “You know,” she said with a faraway look, “when you were born I remember the doctor saying, ‘Poor kid—what happened to her nose? It must have gotten broken during the delivery.’”

So I opted for surgery in the hope of undoing what had apparently been a lifetime of getting my face bashed in. It was painful and expensive and it gave me my first experience in explaining black eyes to people. It did lessen my sinus problems for a few years, until I acquired a new hobby that involved even more head trauma than horseback riding: sparring.

“You ought to have your head examined,” my grandmother would say if she were alive today and knew what I do in sparring class. To which I would reply, “But I have, Grandma. Over and over again. Every time I get a black eye.” And then she’d tell me to watch my mouth and not get smart with her.

I miss Grandma.

But anyway: My history would seem to indicate that I have a distinct fondness for getting hit in the head, or that I at least don’t mind it very much, when in fact I do—quite a lot. I abhor violence in general and I like it even less when it’s specific to me. So I’m not sure why none of my injuries ever stopped me from going out and putting myself in situations where the exact same thing was undoubtedly going to happen to me all over again.

I’ve asked other martial artists about this, and most of them tend to give the same response. They’ve all been injured when they sparred, and they’ve even had times when they seriously considered giving up sparring altogether. But it wasn’t typically the injuries that made them feel that way. The things that made people question the wisdom of risking injury in the ring usually had to do with their partner’s attitude—his or her self-control, ego, or mental health. The injuries themselves were usually just temporary setbacks.

It sounds weird, but what it boils down to is that there are some people you don’t mind being hurt by.

I let the surgeon break my nose because I believed it would improve my overall health. And then I turned around and gave my training partners permission to do the very same thing (minus the anesthesia and the co-pay), because I thought that was also, somehow, going to improve my life. Maybe because sparring keeps me on familiar terms with force, so that force becomes less mysterious, impressive, and intimidating to me. Maybe because it gives me a deeper understanding of the way adrenaline affects my behavior, which helps me make better choices when I’m upset. Or maybe it’s that sparring opens a window into the complex emotions associated with violence—a window I can easily close and turn away from if the view overwhelms me.

I don’t want to get overly romantic about this. Some people fight because they like to hurt other people, not because they want to help them. Some people watch fights because they like to see fighters get hurt (the same people, I assume, who watch auto races hoping to see a crash). Physical injury can be entertaining to a certain subset of the population. But even a fighter like mixed martial artist Genki Sudo—who is tremendously entertaining to watch (I always learn something from watching him fight, and only about half of what I learn is about fighting)—can’t manage to look glamorous when he’s pounding an opponent in the head.

Watch Sudo knocking out Royler Gracie, for example, in 2004. The first three minutes of the match are a grappling contest, with a lot of knees to the ribs, and Sudo throwing some hard shots to Gracie’s midsection here and there—from all appearances just to keep things interesting. But then about three and a half minutes in, as the two men rise from one of the endless slow clinches that predominate the match, Sudo gets in a pair of knee shots to Gracie’s face, and the first one is wicked—Sudo has his hands on the back of his opponent’s head, and when the knee connects you can see Gracie’s shoulders shoot up in the air.

Gracie, being mortal, falls backward, and Sudo’s fist lands one time before his head hits the mat. From then on it’s nothing but punches to the head while Gracie lies prone on the ground—I count ten shots altogether. The downed fighter manages to evade the second blow but after that he’s helpless. His mouthguard comes out around the sixth or seventh punch, and the ref calls it a second or two later.

It’s a little hard to watch, even though Sudo appears to be either pulling his punches slightly, or just really tired. And he targets Gracie’s jaw instead of his nose or temple; I imagine there’s some rule about this, because things would have been even worse otherwise. A punch straight down to the head while the target is prone on the ground is especially devastating because the ground prevents the head from snapping back to dissipate some of the force from the blow. Essentially, you get hit twice: Once by the fist and once by the ground.

I take a semi-professional interest in this kind of thing because I’ve had a taste of it myself, but I still don’t find it entertaining. Sudo’s pasting of Gracie is workmanlike, almost clinical, and it reminds me of what my surgeon must have looked like as he and his team were breaking my nose. Whack. Whack. Crunch.

I don’t think I could hit someone like that, unless my life depended on it. I can’t help wondering what those punches must have sounded like to Gracie.

Still, the man must have had his reasons for being there. He walked into the ring of his own accord, and he obviously thought he could benefit from the fight. He and Sudo both knew the risks, and they both consented to them.

Consensual violence is a concept my friend Amy came up with to reconcile her efforts to reduce violence (she’s a social worker) with her hobby of kicking the crap out of people (she’s also a second-degree black belt). Though we may experience violence in the dojo, Amy explained to me, “it’s not injurious to us in any lasting way because it’s consensual.”

This makes sense to me. I’ve definitely been damaged during karate practice, but it’s far less traumatic than, say, being in a car accident. When the surgeon and his assistant broke my nose on the operating table, I knew why they were doing it. In the same way, when I get clocked during a sparring match, I don’t have to ask the universe, “Why did I get hurt?” I was sparring, for crying out loud. And I spar because (though my grandmother would never have understood this) I believe it’s good for me.

But is it good for the other person? You have to assume that your opponent is there for a reason too, whatever that might be. You have to assume that if you don’t try to hit them, hard, they aren’t going to get what they want or need out of the fight. But it can be difficult. Even though I’m not trying to break anybody’s nose, I have to remind myself to really hit them. I have to remember that force and pain are necessary parts of the process. That holding back will not suffice—will in fact just waste everyone’s time.

Most of the martial artists I’ve talked to didn’t have injury-related doubts about sparring. But a few of them did. Those were people who had injured someone else during a match. They hit too hard, applied too much force, and even though they did so with a consenting opponent, it was still very difficult for them to come to terms with what happened.

Hearing your own bones break is an unpleasant experience, but, as it turns out, hearing yourself break someone else’s bones is often worse. This is a comparison I hope I never have to make firsthand. Still, the human body is not nicely calibrated, like golf clubs or surgical implements. It’s a blunt instrument at best, and when you spar you’re attempting some very delicate work. There are bound to be slip-ups. You don’t have to like it, but you have to be able to live with it.

I take comfort in knowing that, if I ever do break someone else’s nose, I’ll at least be able to refer them to a good surgeon.