I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

28 Jan

In our Taekwondo classes, we have students of all ages, but particularly youth, who are having a hard time performing a particular kick but who refuse to take feedback on improving it because they are concerned about looking good. So, for instance, they would rather kick the target hard, or be fast, than alter their mechanics to do the kick properly.

You can see that they are conscious of their inadequacy in front of everyone (even when most other students aren’t much better) and are almost trying to hide their shortcoming in plain sight. I have in mind right now one youth in particular whose face shows his concern with his image every time he tries a technique. Despite encouragement and coaching, he continues to do techniques the same way, to be comfortable and to try to look good, rather than working on it and risk looking bad by, say, missing the target.

One class he – everyone – was practicing a particularly challenging kick, the backspin.  It just so happens that at my Fifth Degree Black Belt test, my two uncompleted breaking/performance feats involved backspins. (Backspins never were my favorite kick, but I like them much better now!)  I could tell that “Tyler” was so preoccupied with his own image that he wasn’t even noticing how almost every other student was struggling with the same kick.  After watching Tyler for a while, I knew what to do.

I stopped class, put my hand on Tyler’s shoulder and, with a wink and a smile said, “Hey everyone, Mr. Tyler really, really, REALLY (exaggerating) stinks at backspins and is having a hard time getting them. Does anyone else have a hard time with backspins?” Tyler sheepishly dropped his head, but was smiling, almost with relief. The cat was out of the bag, even if it had been running around the gym every single class.  Almost every hand went up, including mine, and I repeated the story of my Fifth Dan test.

I again demonstrated and explained the mechanics of the backspin. Immediately, in the next round of practice, Tyler and most other students were working to alter their mechanics and nail down those backspins. The truth shall set you free.

One of the aspects of martial arts training that regularly captures my attention is how it presents reality to us in a very direct way. Whether it’s a physical attribute (or shortcoming), a character or personality disposition (or weakness), or an emotional or spiritual state or tendency (or frailty), martial arts training will at some point reveal it to you as a ship emerging from a dense fog, if not occasionally present it to you on a big platter under your nose.

Other endeavors may share this ability with martial arts, but martial arts particularly, if not uniquely, take one’s conglomeration of body, mind and spirit and churns it through the Cuisinart of reality checks.

Sometimes there are stark revelations: “I am too heavy and out of shape and even with my martial arts training, I’m probably toast if I’m assaulted; I should start laying off the burgers, fries and pizza.”  Usually, however, there are slow, subtle revelations: “I realized after five years that I never learned how to do that kick well because I was afraid of really trying for fear of proving that I stunk, and I’ve always felt very insecure about stinking at physical stuff.” Or, “I realized a year later I didn’t prepare as hard as I could for my black belt test because I didn’t want to try my best and fail; it would have been hard to handle, so I left myself the excuse of not preparing and trying as well as I could have, assuring failure.”

In the face of their own realities virtually everyone I encounter in martial arts makes excuses or cops out in some way at some point, often multiple points. We tend to avoid dealing with the inconvenient truths (sorry, Mr. Gore) or painful facts about ourselves and our circumstances.

And there’s where this blog post is going: if the martial arts gym is a microcosm of our larger lives and histories then, too, in life more broadly, we don’t like to deal with the inconvenient facts that challenge our comfort, our biases, our fears, our blacks and whites.

I’m always intrigued with, if not taken aback by, the dynamics of disharmony and discord, debate and argument, whether a political battle, a business interaction, family discord or a personal relationship. Across the board, the vast majority of us stink at working things out; we sorely mismanage, or simply avoid, challenging conversations.

In such instances, I believe that to find the better solution we need to come out of our securely-defended forts and explore the world of other realities and possibilities outside. We have to be willing to acknowledge and understand more of the full array of facts of situations, to try to look at them clearly and honestly.  I also believe we have to hear – really hear — the stories of other people who adhere to some of those facts or realities.

I also believe that, when presenting our own viewpoint, we need to be honest and upfront with facts and realities, and avoid partial-truths that we customarily use to win, rather than actually improve. This does assume we care more about discovering truth and better ways, and not just winning.

I think nearly all of us like to be right; we all like to win. We prefer to settle comfortably into either black or white, not grey. We prefer to not risk what might happen if we open the door to the possibility of a more perfect situation for fear of things “going the other way.” So we decide to stand by, if not strongly defend, our usual perspective.

I’m not saying that we have to always compromise or that we can’t stand for something. I am saying that we’re not perfect, the world is not perfect, and that I’m convinced there is nearly always a better way, a new/tangential direction, a higher reality, a more perfect option, in every situation.

If we hold out any hope of not simply being right, or winning, but of discovering what’s better, then we have to come out from behind our walls, take off our blinders, and honestly, even aggressively, explore all of the facts, truths, and realities of a situation, particularly those that challenge what we hold to be our own truths.

We have to be like a 60 year old woman entering the Taekwondo gym, courageously stepping into a new possibility while facing all of the realities of herself and what she is entering into. We have to be like Tyler who, in acknowledging how he was imperfect or “wrong” could then actually make things right.

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