In none of these works does it say martial artists are superhuman, immune to emotion, insecurity or error. Martial artist are not infallible. None of them say that martial artists are indestructible either. I bring this up because I just reread the section of Karate-Do: My Way of Life called ‘Recognizing Nonsense.’ In these few pages, Sensei Funakoshi cautions against falling for the tales of amazing feats and the outstanding claims some martial arts masters assert. This section, in turn, reminded me of something that happened recently and my friend’s comment about my reaction to it.
Here’s it is.
I’m a teacher and in the summer months I am part of a teacher-manned maintenance crew that works out of my school district’s Grounds Department. We do landscaping at all the schools, painting jobs, and other basic construction-type tasks. On occasion, we help teachers move from one classroom to another or one school to another. We also spread mulch in our elementary schools’ playgrounds. So, on one of our lunch breaks in July, I went to the bathroom in the Faculty Lounge of the school where we were working. My friend had just come out of the bathroom and I figured he was going back downstairs and outside to rejoin the rest of the crew. The bathroom is a single-person setup with a door that opens out and into the Faculty Lounge.
When I was done and exiting the bathroom, as I went around the door to shut it, lo and behold, my friend was hiding behind it. He took a step toward me, hands raised, arms outstretched and said, “Waah!” Naturally, I responded. My hands, in turn, rose and my elbows were relaxed. I must’ve looked like I was about to grab the lapel of his gi, had he been wearing one, and deliver some kind of nage waza that I’d learnt during a semester of Judo in college. Upon realizing that it was my friend, I relaxed and let out what sounded to me as a slow motion “Whoa!” I sounded ridiculous and we both started laughing. All of this happened in a matter of seconds; say, two or three.
My friend, however, still smiling, said, “Great. Some kind of black belt you are.” While I was still laughing at the ridiculousness of my verbal response, something about his statement struck me. I was hit with the thought that he has such an inaccurate perception of martial arts practitioners. I surmised that his ideas of what martial arts are and how they behave come from what he’s seen in movies and from all of the myths and legends that get shared all over the world from one generation to the next; things like having to register one’s hands and feet as lethal weapons and that just because we’re martial artists (or maybe it’s just black belts) that we can kick everyone’s butt from one side of town to the next. This is what prompted me to write this blog post. I want to set the record straight on what it is to be a martial artist.
Before I say anymore and you think I’m just some yahoo who’s simply flapping his gums and has no foundation for what he’s saying, here is my very brief CV: I’m a martial artist with thirty-two years of experience. I hold a master rank in one style and I’ve trained in others. For varying lengths of time – one-day workshop to several months to several years - I have trained under many notable masters and instructors. Some of them include Grandmaster Kwang Jae Lee, Grandmaster Ik-Hwan Kim, Grandmaster Sung Bok Nam, Master Levy Diogene, Master Herb Perez, Master Steve Loh, Dan McGhee, David Sonta, Sifu Larry Tan, Grandmaster Sang H. Kim, Master Giduk Kwon, and Grandmaster Sungkeun Yoo.
So, here goes.
Martial artists are human beings. We laugh, we cry. We can be scared. We can be startled. We can be confident and we can be insecure. We can be kind and we can be mean. We succeed and we fail. We have desires and we can be selfless. We lust, love and lose. What we’re not are the superheroes you see in the movies. What we’re not are emotionless robots. That prototype of the infallible seemingly everyman who turns out to be a fighting machine is stuff of fiction. It’s cool but it’s not real. It’s Seagal, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, Statham and Snipes. Don’t get me wrong. I love all of those martial arts badass movies but they don’t depict an accurate portrayal of what a real martial artist is like. Granted, the characters in most of these movies are ex-Navy Seals or CIA or MI-6 so perhaps the real life versions of these individuals are on high alert all the time. Otherwise, simply because of our training, martial artists are not.
Many, if not all, martial artists are badass fighters when called upon but that person who’s always on alert and knows when they’re being followed and wakes up in the middle of the night at the slightest feeling of danger is a rarity. We, everyday martial artists - even masters - are merely human beings. We get up in the morning and go about our days just like anyone else. We get mad, we get sad and we get happy. We worry about taking care of our families, of the monthly bills, of the chores we have to do just the same as everyone else. Not all of us are that smooth, witty-tongued centre of attention. Martial arts training, however, does teach us to control our emotions and impulses in every aspect of our lives but especially when dealing with our troubles. When we go somewhere unfamiliar or have to do something stressful, our training has taught us to be confident and alert. Having been knocked down on the mat and gotten up many times in the dojang, when we’re down in real life we’re able to rise up yet again. Martial arts training, of course, does give us better fitness and healthier bodies. We learn skills we can use to protect ourselves if ever attacked. We acquire and live by a set of rules and act according to a certain code of respect, self-respect, decorum, propriety and service - what the Japanese call Bushido - but, ultimately, martial arts is about control – control of you - and being the best version of you that you can be at any given moment.
I didn’t need to be on high alert when I came out of the bathroom so I wasn’t. However, when I am in a situation that makes me feel or sense danger, my alert level does go up. In fact, contrary to what my friend might have preferred, I didn’t respond with a block and arm locks and a submission hold or with a redirect and front kick to his middle. That’s because my training allowed me to respond, and not react, to the fact that it was my friend playing a joke on me and not simply attack who was in front of me. I was able to control my mind to assess the situation, my emotions to know that I wasn’t really being threatened, and my body so that I didn’t punch or kick or throw my friend.
So, my dear reader, remember that martial arts might transform a person from a regular version of him or herself to a superhero one but they don’t make us superheroes in the ways martial artists practitioners are portrayed in the movies. Regardless of style or rank, we are human beings first, just like you.