The reason for this story is not the importance of martial arts themselves, but of what Sensei told me when he first heard about my adventure.
I should put this in context. When you announce an adventure like mine, you get a lot of criticism. Dump trucks of the stuff. You’ve got people who are scared for you, and will say anything to get you to stay. You’ve got people who have lived a little and want to assess how serious you are. And then there are people who just think the whole idea is stupid.
In the face of that kind of criticism, you learn pretty quickly to just ignore it.
So I weather objections on the grounds of safety, language, health, culture, terrain, income and occupation. Almost daily, I shrug off remixes of the same cautionary tales I heard the week before. Sorry, but if you’ve given me a passionate reason why I shouldn’t go, it probably went in my mental spam filter.
But never Sensei. He gets a free pass to my complete attention (so do my parents).
You could say it’s the years of training. I’m required to treat him with respect, so I’d listen closely to his opinion on any topic. But it’s more than that.
As my teacher, Sensei is uniquely placed to gauge exactly how ready I am. He knows my reaction time. My attitude. My energy. My spiritual state. How I handle fear and surprise. His feelings about this goal of mine are of great interest to me.
So, three weeks ago, stretching on the mat for the first time in too long, we talked. He asked where I’m going after my stint in Milwaukee, and I told him.
“Sensei, I’m walking to Brazil. From Minnesota.”
He nodded his head.
I waited to hear what he would say.
“It would be good if you lived through it.”
Life is Itself Beautiful
Life is an easy thing to lose. Martial artists know that too well. We train to learn the many fragile points on the body. We discover how hard it is to protect them, and how easily an outside force can reach them.
Life is an easy thing to lose, but the cost is high. Because life is also beautiful. The experience of being conscious is the first and greatest gift anyone gives us.
What Sensei said to me carried great meaning. His words held no judgement, in the truest sense of that phrase: no evaluation that my trip is bad or good. Like anyone else who cares about me, he might rather I not risk my life. But unlike others, he knows it is useless to tell me not to go. So he didn’t even start that conversation.
Instead, he cut to the quick of it. It would be good if you lived.
These words carry the heavy implication you might die, and the hopeful assertion it is possible to survive. But do I have the skills to avoid the former, and ensure the latter? There’s no point in asking. The only way to answer that question is on the mat.
A New Humility
Last week I finished another training session, sweaty and blissfully sore like always. I thanked Sensei for the lesson.
“You did well today,” he said.
It was hard to hear. Praise is rare in the dojo, but when given it’s always sincere. I knew Sensei was right. I had practiced hard between classes and did everything he said. Compared to my usual performance, I did great.
But that was what stung so badly. However good I might be by the Drew Jacob standard, I was not very good by the Handling Myself Against Murderers standard. Being better than I was in college doesn’t mean much if I’m not good enough to save my life.
With the past few weeks of training under my belt, I’m aware of a painful fact: Three months of hard training may not get me to where I need to be.
This leaves me wondering:
- Can I add more training before my trip? When? How?
- Are my other pastimes worth it? Should I give up longsword and focus on the most effective art I know, Jujutsu?
- Should I pivot? What other skills will help save my life – social skills? A spiritual demeanor?
This weighs on me. What would you do, my friends? Blog posts always end with a call for comments, but this is a very serious question for me. If you can imagine yourself in my shoes, how else would you prepare? What more would you do?