I generally consider this a family-friendly blog, but please indulge me this PG-13 rated post. (It’s really not that bad!)
First, a story. Teaching high school English is my day job, and we recently held an assembly on how to stop bullying, how to improve school culture, and the importance of social justice with activist and speaker Calvin Terrell. If you’re not familiar with his work, check it out. You’ll be impressed with his positive message for young people.
After what was a revealing and emotional experience I debriefed a few of my classes. Conversations ranged from white supremacy to sexism to terrorism and, eventually, back to bullying. During the conversation it came up that I teach martial arts and self-defense, and the kids were genuinely interested in learning some anti-bullying tips. It turned into the best type of classroom discussion for teachers in which I learned more than I taught. Students were open and insightful and I appreciate that.
However, the reason I generally don’t share my martial arts background is because of comments like these:
“Which teachers can you beat up?”
“How easy could you kill someone?” (Cue Bruce Lee impersonations.)
and my least favorite . . .
“Why don’t you quit teaching and fight MMA?”
I know I’m naive to think the true nature of the martial arts is better known now than when they started to become more mainstream in the U.S. during 60’s. But the way MMA–more specifically the UFC–has completely dominated our perception of martial arts is starting to trouble me.
The above question not only devalues teaching as a profession (whole other blog post coming on that), but it shows that people think the only reason to dedicate yourself to the martial arts is to fight and “make bank,” as my students recently suggested I do.
Sure, there are a lot of reasons to get involved in combat sports. Many athletes love to compete, others want to prove themselves to themselves, some (i.e., the Gracies) want to test their skills, and others do indeed want to make a lot of money. None of these are bad reasons to get involved in fighting–especially considering that fighting is, on the most fundamental level, meant to hurt people.
Call me a relic. Call me what you will. I love MMA (and Bob Seager) as much as the next guy. I want to be able to defend myself and my loved ones from attackers. But to separate things like character development, self improvement, and art from martial arts is like engaging in a shallow romantic relationship. And romantic comedies and reality TV cheapen what our culture dubs a loving relationship–a parallel easily drawn to what has happened to martial arts, after all.
Here’s the “NSFW” part. A poem that further deepens the analogy.
Sex Without Love by Sharon Olds
How do they do it, the ones who make love
without love? Beautiful as dancers,
gliding over each other like ice-skaters
over the ice, fingers hooked
inside each other’s bodies, faces
red as steak, wine, wet as the
children at birth whose mothers are going to
give them away. How do they come to the
come to the come to the God come to the
still waters, and not love
the one who came there with them, light
rising slowly as steam off their joined
skin? These are the true religious,
the purists, the pros, the ones who will not
accept a false Messiah, love the
priest instead of the God. They do not
mistake the lover for their own pleasure,
they are like great runners: they know they are alone
with the road surface, the cold, the wind,
the fit of their shoes, their over-all cardio-
vascular health–just factors, like the partner
in the bed, and not the truth, which is the
single body alone in the universe
against its own best time.
Is it right to have sex without love? Sure, if both partners are consensual about it. Is it right to live a lifestyle that keeps the two at odds? Maybe not. The same goes for the martial arts. Fighting is fun and profitable for some. But can you still enjoy all the great benefits of martial arts if you only focus on the cage or on the streets? I don’t think you can.
The martial arts, at its finest, transcends sport and self-defense. It is beautiful and full of self-expression; it is poetry in motion. Training in the martial arts is a rewarding lifestyle for everyone to engage in. There are no winners or losers in the true pursuit of martial arts, only partners committed to making each other better.
Maybe if we saw education, romance, and martial arts as opportunities to nurture relationships, we wouldn’t need to worry about fighting all the time?