I’ve been so busy that it wasn’t until the end of the day last Friday, as I was riding home on the team bus from a volleyball match, that I realized it was my 27th anniversary of becoming a Taekwondo student. Actually, to be honest, I don’t really remember the exact date of my first Taekwondo class but I do know it was in October 1985. I can’t find my copy of the enrollment contract and with my parents living in The Philippines it would be too much to try to find the cashed cheque or bank statement from then to pinpoint the exact date. I was sixteen, we had just moved to the United States from Hong Kong and they were paying for my martial arts studies. The 26th and 16th and even the 9th of the month stand out in my head - and, funnily, they’re also birthdays of former secondary school classmates and the 16th is the birthday of one of my friends who got me started in martial arts - but it’s the 26th that sticks out the most so I use it as my anniversary.
When I think that I’ve been a Taekwondoist for twenty-seven years, it astonishes me. People do things for long periods but in today’s day and age, with so many things to choose from and so many things being seasonal, it’s hard to imagine sticking with something this long. I’m not sure of the exact statistics but I think in the mid 1980s, when I started Taekwondo, it was something like 1 in 5 marriages ended in divorce. Today, I think it’s worse at 50%. With something so sacred having such an iffy chance of lasting, how has something seemingly trivial stayed with me?
When I look at my middle school and high school students, a compartmentalized and seasonal life is evident. Fall is for football or soccer, the winter is for basketball or swimming or gymnastics, the spring is for lacrosse or softball/baseball, and the summer is for holiday. Even if the student does more than one activity a season, the activity time is broken up by days of the week and is a cafeteria of sports, arts and music. (Whether a child should do just one activity and concentrate on it at an early age or do many activities and narrow his or her focus at an older age is a discussion for another blog.)
So, when I look at my martial arts involvement and development, amidst the other things I did then and do now, it pleasantly surprises me that I’ve been doing Taekwondo for so long. I think my longevity - and I believe others who have been doing anything for as long and longer than I’ve been a Taekwondoist will tell you the same thing - is because I didn’t and haven’t given my Taekwondo evolution any kind of timeline. With sports, a person’s career ends. Even in some arts, like dance, the person’s performance career ends even though he or she may turn to teaching, choreography, running his or her own dance company, etc.
With martial arts, and not just Taekwondo, there is a finite part - found in the sports versions of them - and an infinite part. The latter is what the do (Japanese and Korean; tao in Chinese) in Taekwondo, Karate-do, Judo, Kendo and so on means. The word means ‘way’ and it pertains to a way of life; tenets of character development, etiquette, courtesy, respect (towards oneself and others) and humility that the martial artist tries to follow regardless of his successes and failures in and out of the sports side of martial arts. The do pertains as much, if not more, to the inner aspects of one’s life as it does to the outer (physical, technical and combat). In fact, in martial arts, the martial part does exist with respect to the practitioner being able to defend himself but, ultimately, it is about the battles we all have within ourselves - conflicts against laziness, cheating, bigotry, being judgmental, arrogance, impatience, the inability or lack of desire to forgive, forgiving without forgetting, pride and others.
And that’s the beauty of Taekwondo and other martial arts. It’s not like a sport that has finite goals like winning a gold medal every four years, a championship at the end of the season, setting and breaking records, beating a particular opponent. Yes, you can set goals each year to win the championship again or score more goals than the previous season but those are finite, black-and-white goals. Being human, which I believe is the greyest area of all, martial arts fits perfectly with the ever-changing inner turmoil and inner peace within all of us.
With twenty-seven years of martial arts under my belt, which, yes, is black and awards me the title of ‘master,’ I am still evolving. I may be a master in some of the technical aspects of Taekwondo. I may have even mastered and conquered certain parts of my character but humans experience struggles everyday and what I’ve learnt through martial arts helps me handle them. Do I win all the time? No, but when I lose it’s with the knowledge that I can face those demons that bested me today and overcome them tomorrow.