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If You Believe In Peace, Should You Know How to Fight?

When I was 23 I was authorized by my jujutsu school, Kokusai Jujutsu Renmei, to start a training group at the University of Minnesota.

The group offered extremely low training fees aimed at college students, who frequently can’t afford the tuition associated with most martial arts schools. It’s one of many amazing projects started by Michael Coleman of Futen Dojo.

I had some student organizing experience from my own college days and I nervously, but faithfully planned my recruitment drive. I hung posters everywhere but that wasn’t the key to success. As the first week of classes started, I took time each day to stand on campus and tell people about the training group in person.

“Are you interested in a free martial arts class?”

Wham! Put a flyer in their hand.

I must have asked that question 100 times a day. For people who seemed sincerely interested, I took down names and email. Over the course of a week I developed quite the roster of potential students.

I also learned a lot about peoples’ views on martial arts. At one point I saw the woman of my dreams striding toward me: a confident step, head held high, dressed in hippie garb with a killer fashion sense. Her oversized sunglasses hid her eyes, but we locked gazes. I had to talk to her!

She came closer and I readied my most impressive voice.

“Hi, are you interested in a free martial arts—”

Wrong choice of words.

“I believe in peace.” Her voice was icy cold and she kept on walking. The confident stride and the chin held high were a direct show of distaste for this warrior in her path.

I watched her go, dumbstruck. She was ten paces away before I figured out my own reaction: But I believe in peace!

“So do I,” I mumbled to no one. I had the good grace not to yell it after her.

Why I Practice Martial Arts

I’ve practiced martial arts since I was 14. Originally, I started because I was fat, nerdy, and picked on. In my head I had some idea that I would become a really badass fighter and then beat up all of the kids who bullied me. Like most spiritual pursuits, this one started with selfish reasons in mind.

For four years I practiced Tae Kwon Do. I’m not a fan of TKD anymore, but it served its purpose. I lost weight (which I somehow didn’t expect), gained a lot of confidence, and had something meaningful in my after-school time. I even accidentally saw a girl’s nipple for the first time, which pretty much makes any 14 year old’s day. Or year.

By the time I moved to Milwaukee for college, martial arts had become a part of my identity. At that time I was privileged to begin training at Futen Dojo, which was my first experience with traditional martial arts. For the first time I learned techniques actually designed for the battlefield. I also learned how to fall, how to roll, and how to escape. These are among the most important abilities I’ve ever learned.

The other half of the training at Futen Dojo was the rigorous discipline. The dojo is run exactly like a traditional school in Japan (and it is part of such a school) and students give apprentice-like respect to the teacher’s instructions. I was at just the right age where this was immensely transformative to me. Over the course of years, I was broken down and built back up. I developed better manners, more awareness of my surroundings, and a deep instinct for my own body.

Heroes Have Swords

This blog is about a heroic philosophy: the idea of living for high ideals, taking action, and leaving a deep impact on the world. In recent months, you guys have helped me hone what it means to live heroically. We’re getting close to ready for the beta.

One of the things that has become apparent: it’s not a metaphor.

The Heroic Life isn’t code for doing charity work or picking up litter (though that rocks if you do). It’s about actually living a life that echoes the great heroes of myth. Game-changing change.

And here’s the thing: heroes know how to fight. 

And you should too.

I don’t actually mean “fight.” I haven’t gotten into a fight since I was 8, when my only attack was stepping on the guy’s toes and we became friends afterward.

Most people who practice martial arts never get into a bona fide fight. (If they do, they might be doing something wrong.)

But the associated benefits that come with knowing self-defense include:

  • A greater range of motion than most people think is possible
  • Endurance
  • Confidence across the board
  • The ability to dodge, block, or escape blows
  • The ability to safely restrain someone who is drunk or aggressive
  • Strength and lean muscle
  • Surviving falls and accidents

This last one is far and away the greatest skill I’ve gotten from martial arts. How often do you need to dodge a punch? Hopefully never. But anyone can take a spill from a bike or trip going downstairs.

I’ve flown 30 feet off a bike going 25+ miles per hour, stood up unharmed, and kept biking. (In fact, I caught the bike between my legs as I flipped through the air, without thinking, to keep it from getting banged-up, too. And I’m a mediocre martial artist.)

The fact that faces every would-be hero is this: you can’t help anyone if you yourself are not as capable as possible. That’s why one of the steps to living heroically is learning as many skills as you can. And few things on earth teach as many skills, or such crucial ones, as martial arts training.

Finding the Right Art

There are a million martial arts out there, and they all do different things. There’s an ongoing debate between the advantages of eclectic martial arts and traditional martial arts. Eclectic martial arts tend to be custom-designed for rapid progress from the start of training, and good results in the ring at tournaments. Traditional martial arts, including traditional Japanese jujutsu, tend to take a slower arc. They cultivate a lot of skills that don’t directly apply to tournament fighting but have incredible results over time.

I won’t add fuel to the debate other than to say that of the many martial arts I have practiced or continue to practice, the only one that has never given me a training injury is traditional Japanese jujutsu. And the only one that I’ve ever found real-life applications for outside of the dojo? Also Japanese jujutsu. For me, these are two of the most important qualities in a martial art.

What are your thoughts, Rogue fans? How many of you practice martial arts (or have)? I’m really curious as the community here is growing and we’re getting new voices every week. Do you think the ability to defend yourself is essential to heroism?

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38 thoughts on “If You Believe In Peace, Should You Know How to Fight?

  1. As you say, I think the ability to defend (you or others) and avoid injury is key to being prepared for heroism.

    In fact, I am googling “jujutsu michigan” right now.

    • Oh cool! The other thing I’d look for in a martial arts school is the teacher. There should be a good vibe there that fills you with respect. Different people need different kinds of teachers. I’d rather have chemistry with an instructor in a so-so art form than flounder under someone I don’t fully trust in a great art form.

  2. I think self-defense is an essential part of heroism, but the defensive aspects should extend to our communities, especially those who are unable to defend themselves. Championing the helpless seems like a great portion of heroism to me. As well as being able to take a fall and get right back up again.

    • YES! Wesley I can’t agree more. That is spot on. Some martial artists sneer at “the weak” and I can’t stand it. People who train their defense skills should love and help the people who don’t.

  3. Living heroicly sounds hard. Can I be a sidekick? (I sure hope humor is also a part of the heroic life or I’m gonna have a bunch of martial artists knocking on my door soon …. ) :)

    Seriously, thanks for a great article. I’ve been truly seeking a way to do martial arts training for myself but the money has been the problem. As you say, tuition at some schools is prohibitive even for some in their 30’s with a job! Luckily, I to live in a college town so I hope that I can eventually find a school to join. And if not here, there is time in the future, too.

  4. For two years in college (more than 10 years ago) I studied Wing Chun King Fu. I loved it. It opened my eyes to a lot of new things, was a great outlet for my natural love of hitting things, and gave me a sense of confidence that I still carry today. It’s powerful stuff to be a 5’2″ female who knows how to throw a punch! Or block one. This particular form was also, so the lore goes, developed by a woman, a Buddhist nun, who wanted an effective form of self-defense for those who weren’t as strong and large as a man.

    In my small Welsh town there is some one who teaches this form, though I’ve yet to meet anyone who studies Wing Chun here. Later this fall, after my son starts school for the first time (universal preschool at age three for the win!) I am going to see if the teacher will take us both. My son has inherited my need to hit things and loves Kung Fu Panda and Avatar: the Last Airbender (the latter, Drew, I highly highly recommend to you if you’ve not seen it yet); I think this form of kung fu would be good for him – and me, once more. Confidence, discipline, fitness, self-defense – all good things, whether 3 or 30.

    • Niki, that’s the best! I really hope you do get back into training. I’m sure your son will love it too. Wing Chun is a beautiful style with a lot of subtle movements. Each one has a secret application. It’s the greatest.

  5. eliseharris says:

    I feel that learning to defend myself brings me one step closer to invincibility. This weekend I realised that I could kill a man with my bare hands, after only 3 weeks of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes (and a year of TKD, but that doesn’t teach you how to kill someone).

  6. I absolutely think the ability to defend yourself is essential to anyone wanting to live the way you describe on this blog. That is, it’s essential for anyone who wants to live heroically. It’s a sad fact that many people attracted to guns/weapons/martial arts/fighting are ones who want to coerce or dominate other people. Those of us who believe in living and acting morally have a responsibility to arm ourselves, so that we can fight for what we know is right.

    My dad told me something when I was younger that has had a profound impact on how I think about conflict. He told me that if I ever found myself unable to avoid a fight, I should do everything I could to win, because I could always be merciful. I had the choice. If I let someone else beat me, they might not care as much about mercy.

    Heroes should know how to fight.

    • You can always be merciful. That is some serious wisdom Trent. Hats off to your dad.

      I’m curious what you mean that many people attracted to guns or martial arts want to coerce people. I can see that image around groups like the NRA. I guess guns have a pretty big following like that. But I feel like it’s a minority with martial arts. Most people I know who follow martial arts see it as almost a spiritual thing (men) or a major source of building confidence (women). I haven’t met many who seem like the aggressive/coercive types.

  7. I’ve done Western Martial Arts for over 20 years (Renaissance swordsmanship based on the European fencing masters, as well as armored combat which has been adapted for more modern sport). It is tournament focused, but the determination of victory is determined by the loser of the contest (in other words, you call the blows against you as being good or not… no judges). Honor and integrity are paramount.

    How this relates to the Heroic Life: A lot of the values that have built inside of me through martial arts are what made your blog (and articles and book) have such a deep resonance within me. You put into words what I had been looking for, and gave me a direction to channel my energies as well as filled in some of the gaps that had been missing to allow me to take the next steps of self-growth.

    Heroes are made by the adversity they face. All heroes have weapons they wield to overcome these trials and accomplish these feats: weapons of the mind, of the soul, of the heart, and of the hand. Proficiency in martial arts is a worthy addition to the hero’s arsenal.

    • Thank you for those words Duncan. I didn’t mention this above but the other art I still practice regularly is German longsword. It’s near and dear to my heart. If the Heroic Life resonates with a swordsman like you, then I feel like it must be growing in the right direction. Glad to have you on board good sir!

      • excindoignaviae says:

        Hi Drew,

        I took martial arts as a kid. I fantasize about starting to do it again. Unfortunately, my body is pretty worn down. Lots of joint problems.

        I am in the process of trying to mend myself to as to get into decent shape. It is an uphill battle.

        I read on I believe the Hero Handbook a quote from Johnny Depp saying that a person should train to be able to run for 30 miles while holding a child. I want to do this, too.

        I am trying to start my hero’s journey, which is what my blog is about (I thought I was being totally original until I stumbled upon all these other ones, lol). I need to start small because I have a lot of work to do. I may never be able to have the body of a hero. But that won’t stop me from trying to get it.

        • excindoignaviae says:

          Also, do you feel that a disabled person cannot travel a hero’s journey?

          You seem to suggest that if someone can’t physically fight/defend themselves then they cannot be heroic.

          • What a profound question.

            My answer is this: no, I absolutely don’t believe disabled persons are unable to be heroes. I think every person living the Heroic Life has to choose what skills they are going to build up and how they will develop themselves. If certain skills are completely off the table then choose other skills. Martial arts help with a wide sphere of activity but there are so many other vital skills as well.

            That said, I also recall that the greatest martial arts teachers I’ve seen have worked closely with disabled people. No matter what limitations a body may have, there are still optimal ways to move it within those limits. I’ve seen a one-armed student and a one-legged student both excel at jujutsu. In some cases techniques had to be adjusted, whih took expert guidance, but there are still ways for them to move their body to block, defend, escape, or strike.

            I don’t know your unique situation but if you love the idea of martial arts then I would consider asking a variety of teachers what you could do in their system. Some will turn you down, others may just theorize. But there are some true masters out there who can work with you to learn to defend yourself.

        • Hi Excindo, thank you for your comment! Two years ago I suffered a terrible ankle injury which leaves me with lifelong arthritis in that joint. It has made it very difficult to train back up to top shape. Of course, with any worn out joint low-impact workout is preferable, especially a workout that moves the joints which helps them receive the most synovial fluid. In my research during recovery I found that Tai Chi is highly recommended for these exact reasons. Even people with no interest in martial arts are told to take Tai Chi lessons to help with their joints. Depending on the condition you have, perhaps this is worth looking into?

          By the way I am checking out your blog ASAP!

  8. I took Aikido for several years before injuries put an end to it. Still, I learned a lot from it, and now that I am healthy again, would like to again take it up.

    Aikido taught me more than how to throw and roll. It taught me how to be a calm center in a roaring ring of chaos. It taught me how to consciously direct energy. It taught me how to give and take. It taught me that even small, awkward people can do extraordinary things if they permit the learning to happen. I’ve applied those concepts to other areas in my life- including my magical practice. It has been the most useful in my online moderation duties- using language to redirect energy or dissipate it when needed.

    I consider myself a WarriorMage- both because of that practice, and my status as an actual veteran. The philosophy of peace means that sometimes, you have to kick butt. But always as a last resort.

    • Lorie, thank you so much for commenting. I’m glad you’ve recovered from your injuries and will be able to train again – there is nothing like it in the world. The emotions you describe are my experience exactly. Good on you.

      Which branch of the service were you in? How long ago?

  9. “I believe in peace…”

    I think that does raise a good discussion for what is involved in keeping peace. It’s definitely something I’m still working out for myself. I tried absolute pacifism in high school, but I wasn’t fully equipped with the skills to pull it off – and some of those skills do seem inherent in most martial arts training.

    • That’s a really good point Diana. I feel that anyone who wants to pursue nonviolent solutions should go out and learn martial arts. You learn so much about how to defray conflict, escape without fighting, survive dangerous situations, etc. A few years of martial arts should be standard for all peaceful resistance groups ;)

  10. Seeker from Aus says:

    “… the only one which hasn’t given me an injury is traditional Japanese Jiu Justsu…”

    I have to admit to a certain amount of… Hmmn, how to phrase this… If I were a cat and near you when you said that, Id’ve been purring against your leg at hearing that. Strange metaphor I know, but it fits.

    I practice Okinawan Karate (Meibukan Gojyur[y]u), Kobudo (the traditional Okinawan weapons that are the ‘other half’ to Okinawan Karate) and Judo. Every major injury (ie: more than just a bruise or sore arm or something) has resulted from my Judo classes, which are taught in a way geared towards sporting competition, rather then as a martial arts for real world application.

    I highlight this because I think that you’ve really touched on something at the heart of martial arts, particularly in the ‘melting pot world’ that we all live in today.

    If you think about the differences between Sport martial arts and Traditional martial arts, I’ve little doubt that most people would agree that the majority of injuries (by which I mean more than a bruise or graze etc) occur in the former category. Whatever the reason for this, the mindset of the former category is what, I think, gives all martial arts a bad rep; be they traditional or sporting.

    While there is nothing wrong with sporting martial arts, I do feel that there is a certain intrinsic value lost when they are practiced as a sport rather than as a form of self defence. What I feel is lost is a respect of the process of learning a martial art and the inherent psychological/spiritual component that most people who practice the sporting version of ‘X’ miss out on.

    • Seeker, sorry for the slow reply here. You have said this very eloquently, more so than I’ve seen anywhere else. By the way I love the cart metaphor! Cracks me up :)

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  13. The hippy girl reminds me of me! So proudly believing in peace and so unpeacefully rejecting anyone who seems to be different! Chuckle.

    I do Aikido by the way. Three years of training and I’m just starting to feel that I’m not completely rubbish at it. The only thing that keeps me going is it’s just so damn fun. There’s an awesome dojo in Bangkok.

    • Kit, that’s awesome. I’m sorry I didn’t reply to this earlier – somehow I managed to miss the last couple comments here. Keep going with Aikido, it will more than pay off!

  14. At high school my main passion was horse riding. I hated sports at school because we didn’t get any proper lessons. At the end of 6 years the same kids who were good at sports at the beginning were still getting high grades, the others were still barely getting passing grades. I was one of them. I was good at any subject apart from sports.

    I never felt I could do martial arts or any other form of athletics really. It wasn’t for me, I settled for another role, that of the perfect student.

    I have only recently started with martial arts. I never thought I would be welcomed there. Starting at university 6 years ago made it easy to start a new life, but after a few years I got into a rud again. Doing what was expected, going for the safe and easy. Boxing somehow felt safe enough, being cheap, aimed at students and having a separate women’s group. I was surprised at how much it grapped me. I know I am the most experienced one at my group and am surprised to find myself so focussed and truly not afraid at all. I want to go to a real boxing school now, so I am freed of the groups of girls who only want to giggle.

    The thing you said that really hit home was the need to learn new things, really new things, things that seem not to be your thing at all. And than making that thing your own, changing yourself. That is adventure. Not just expecting to unexpected but seeking it out.

    • Janneke, what a great reply. Sorry for my slowness in getting back to you. I want to say how happy I am you found a place in martial arts even after thinking it would never be for you. I had almost an identical experience, being overweight and convinced I “wasn’t athletic.” I’m especially happy to hear you are going to a new boxing school that focuses on serious students, since it sounds like you outgrew the other place…

  15. excindoignaviae says:

    Thank you for the answers! Yes, I would love Tai Chi. And I think I will look into if I can get into “Ju Jutsu for Gimps,” lol.

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  17. Late comment but better than never; I have always wanted to do a martial art, something to build strength but mostly confidence. I don’t like confrontation; I freeze up or avoid it. I want to be able to protect my son though, if it ever came to it and not let him down by not being strong enough. Sadly, I don’t think I’m strong enough to do one; I’m afraid of being laughed out of the dojo, and afraid of my own power.

    • Jen, I can only say two things:

      1) I have never heard of a more pure or noble motivation for martial training than that.

      2) No respectable dojo would laugh you out no matter what your starting skill. More and more dojo are open to women, beginners, and even the meekest people. I don’t want to push you at all, but allI can say is I hope you can leap that hurdle and find a teacher that seems right for you. What starts out as an act of devotion to your son will quickly become a passion of your heart,.

  18. Drew:

    Just found this entry, so pardon the late comment.

    I’ve studied martial arts for most of my adult life (around 25 years, now): Okinawan Kenpo Karate Kobudo, aikido, capoeira, and some krav maga, as well as iaido, some ko-ryu, and European rapier and broadsword techniques.

    Pardon the “Me too!” but I agree with what you and your commenters have been saying: Once you realize that you have the necessary skills to defend yourself against the aggression of others and that you can, if need be, kill to do so, you also come to the realization that you don’t necessarily need to. Other options open up. As one of your commenters said, once you have the skills of a warrior, you can always be merciful.

    This is why true warriors are, more often than not, men and women of peace.

    I also agree with your assessment of the value of knowing how to fall and roll. That was the most valuable thing I took away from my aikido training, and I have since come away uninjured from some harrowing falls and spills.

    And, despite my years of training, I too am merely a mediocre martial artist. I am capable of many things most men my age couldn’t hope to do, but for someone aspiring to the Heroic Path, I am merely adequate.

    • Great answer Scot. I like what you said here: “Once you have the skills of a warrior, you can always be merciful. This is why true warriors are, more often than not, men and women of peace.” Not only this, but people often overlook the flip side (which is equally true): if you lack the skills of a warrior, you will have a hard time being merciful. If you’ve never learned to harmlessly restrain someone, push will come to a lot worse than shove in a bad situation.

      Thanks for posting Scot. What part of the world are you, if I may ask?

  19. Seattle, Washington. If you never get out this way, let me know; I’d love to sit down for a drink or meal and chat with you. I’m somewhat envious of your Great Adventure; I almost went to Brazil myself, a few years back, when I was a dedicated capoeirista. The trip, alas, fell apart at the last moment, amidst events which ultimately led me to fall away from regular capoeira training. Still, I love the art, and the culture and lore of Brazil is still fascinating to me. I very much look forward to reading about your adventures there.

  20. Well, I’ve secretly always wanted to take sword-fighting lessons (not fencing!), but it’s not likely to be offered in my rural small town anytime soon. We got yoga and we got Zumba, but sadly no sword-fighting:( If the community rec. department ever offers a self-defense class I will be the first to sign up. Maybe I should pester them about it.

    • Definitely pester them Grace! Also, I will say that in my early training I had good luck using Christian Tobler’s books. Combine them with a waster (wooden longsword) and Youtube videos and you can certainly learn the guards, footwork, and strikes. From there you can always go to seminars given by Tobler or other masters for injections of in-real-life instruction before going back to training on your own. It’s amazing.

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