There are a number of preconceptions that many of us have when we first foray into the world of martial arts:
“This training will make me invincible!”
“I am very athletic; I should pick this up easily.”
“I am very intelligent; I should pick this up easily.”
“Any art other than the one I am studying is junk!”
There are more, of course, but you get the idea. If we are lucky, these preconceptions are dispelled quietly, gently, and quickly. If we are unlucky, we are forced to deal with these notions harshly, abruptly, and after they have had time to linger for far too long in our psyche.
I bring this up because, recently, I have had to reckon with a preconception I’ve held for quite some time. Fortunately, this is a notion that I already knew was false; still, I had yet to fully acknowledge it as an untruth. The preconception? Very simple:
“A martial artist, due to the nature of his training, adheres to a high moral and ethical code.”
Those more seasoned than I are likely laughing at this point. After all, nowhere was it ever written that a martial artist held to a higher sense of moral authority. The notion is a romantic one at best, one that stems from a misguided understanding of the codes of honor to which the ideal warrior was supposed to exemplify. We neglect to understand that code of honor does not require one to be of strong moral character; a code of honor simply is an agreed upon set of protocols to ensure that, when two warriors fought it out, they could justify their actions by pointing to the other and indignantly crying out: “He offended my honor! I must have satisfaction.” (In truth, I bet most duels were fought because at least one of the combatants wanted to beat up the other, and wanted to be sure he faced no legal consequences as a result.) To put it simply: you can have a code of honor, and still be an amoral jerk.
There was no event or experience that made me finally face this preconception. Instead, it was more like a series of small revelations that I eventually noticed. The experience is much like how one could drive from work to home, always taking the same route, and suddenly realize a store along the way that had always been there, but you hadn’t paid much attention to. (Ask my wife–I do this all the time!) When I first started thinking about it, I was a little dismayed. It seems wrong to me, somehow, that an experienced martial artist should allow themselves to behave in an unethical or base manner. How does martial arts training differ from brawling, if not for ethics?
As I’ve thought more, I have come to what, for me, works as the truth. Yes, there is nothing inherent in martial arts training that forces you to be ethical. I, for example, have often been considered a nice guy, a morally reliable guy. But this facet of my personality stems from sources other than my martial arts training. My training did not make me a better person, per se. Instead, it has given me the ability to stand behind my convictions. To draw a bright line between what I find acceptable, and what I find unpalatable.
I remember a conversation I had a couple of weeks ago. The subject was something political, and the people with whom I was talking were wrestling with the fact that the issue was not black and white, but deeply mired in shades of gray. As I listened, however, I found that it was relatively easy to listen to my own moral and ethical code. Because of my training, I could clearly make a decision that made sense to me, and do so knowing that my perspective did not resolve things perfectly, yet also knowing that I could face the consequences of my point-of-view with confidence.
It is my opinion, now, that as martial artists we must cultivate this ability to draw a line between what we find acceptable and what we do not–WITHOUT attempting to instill a point of view on anyone. (It is for this reason I discourage certain topics from being discussed at the dojo.) We must be willing and able to stand up and protect our mental well-being just as we would protect our physical well-being. And as martial arts instructors, we should strive to help our students stand up for themselves–to figure out where they stand and be unafraid, even if that means you disagree with them.
After all, how many of us really train for some sense of physical security, and how many of us train for mental and emotional security?