Originally published in The Chronotype, August 2014.
It’s 7 in the evening and most people our age are at home, watching TV after dinner, perhaps thinking about taking the dog for a walk before bedtime, wrapping up their long day. For me and my wife Sue, our long day began as early as 6:30 that morning in the gym or the pool, followed by a full day of work at the office, a small meal brought from home, and then here we are, on the mat at the Rice Lake Martial Arts Center, preparing for an hour of class when our sensei, Brian Swantz, will put us through our paces. By the time we get home, unpack and shower, it’ll be nearly 9.
The statistics say that out of a thousand people who begin martial arts training, only one will achieve black belt status. We have beaten the odds. Earlier this month we journeyed to our master’s dojo near Detroit to be tested. On a hot Saturday evening without the benefit of air conditioning, we were called upon to demonstrate everything we have learned in the past four and a half years of training in ryukudo kobujutsu, the art of Okinawan weaponry. With each of five weapons we showed our skill in strikes, blocks, disarms, and the intricate forms we call kata, with dozens of moves in each one. At the end of the two-hour ordeal, Master Peter Carbone consulted with his fellow panel members and then handed us our coveted black belts. It was an emotional moment.
I’d been there before. My taekwondo test in 2005, four hours long in a steamy gym in July, ended when Master Duane Most handed me my black belt, and I was so exhausted I barely had enough strength to replace my perspiration-soaked red belt with the black one. My martial arts journey also included extensive training in the Russian art of Systema, attending week-long camps in Canada to train with Russian Spetsnaz operatives, and in 2010 Sue joined me in the weapons training program that had just been brought here by sensei Lloyd Brown. For someone with no previous experience, she picked up the art quickly and got past the hurdle that everyone faces, when you realize that you are not going to become Bruce Lee in six weeks. Most people drop out when their rubber hits that road, but she hung in there.
But why, indeed, do we do this?
There are easy answers. Self-defense and physical fitness are cited by most who start training, but if you stick with it, the philosophy of the art starts to sink in. You begin to understand and embrace the warrior ethos. The writer Steven Pressfield defines it this way: “We all fight wars—in our work, within our families, and abroad in the wider world. Each of us struggles every day to define and defend our sense of purpose and integrity, to justify our existence on the planet and to understand, if only within our own hearts, who we are and what we believe in.”
The warrior must have a code of ethics to live by. In his book The Ethical Warrior: Values, Morals and Ethics for Life, Work and Service, martial artist and former Marine officer Jack E. Hoban states the Warrior Creed:
Wherever I go, everyone is a little bit safer because I am there.
Wherever I am, anyone in need has a friend.
When I return home, everyone is happy I am there.
It’s a better life!
Pressfield says we “duel adversity every day.” Most of us will never face a life-or-death situation, but we all have challenges. Overcoming them requires us to embrace the warrior virtues of faith, persistence, resolution, tenacity, selflessness, the capacity to endure hardship. Sometimes we will fail, but without these virtues we will fail all the time. Giving up is easy, especially when you find out that modern American society has made it that way. The government will take care of you. Somebody else will take up the slack.
So, why do we do this? Self-defense, certainly; when the chips are down, you want to be able to handle yourself. Fitness, of course. But we do it because, in many ways, it needs to be done. Every society from the dawn of time has relied on warriors to ensure its survival. Ours is no different. Some warriors wear a uniform and confront the forces of darkness in their lair. Others do so by living lives of honor and integrity here at home, working to build a better community, a stronger country. We need warriors, now more than ever. The road is not easy, but the journey has immense rewards. We need you. Join us.