“No silly uniforms, no pointless patterns to memorize”

The ad I’m quoting from – which was for a kickboxing/mixed martial arts class – plays on a couple of very American traits. There’s a presumption – the idea that if one doesn’t immediately see the value of something, it therefore has no value. And there’s a universal egalitarianism, in the notion that we are all equally qualified to pass judgment on just about anything. (Perhaps these are one and the same trait.)

There’s a third trait here, too: a fondness for mockery and sneering. I think someone has just come out with a book on this – something about “snark.” (I haven’t read the book, but here’s a link.)

Anyway, putting aside the third, the first two traits arise from something basically good: a willingness to question what one is being fed. But – a question must be accompanied by a genuine desire to find an answer. Too often it is not. It’s proffered as a conclusion in itself. Or it’s proffered as a challenge: “I think this is wrong, and I challenge you to prove to me it’s right!”

Clearly, a student who questions with that attitude is going to have a tough time learning very much. (Hence the old story of the “Empty Cup.”) Not to mention the struggle their instructor is going to face. (Hence the old stories of the trials prospective students had to endure before being accepted as students.)

You might be thinking (rightly) that someone who mocks uniforms and kata practice simply won’t sign up for traditional training. True – but only partly so. A great many sincere students begin by accepting the program, so to speak, but at some point, whether immediately or years later, come to question it. Really, it’s inevitable. Training puts one through a lot of discomfort. There is physical discomfort, of course, but more importantly there’s mental discomfort: not getting it sometimes; failing and being clumsy; being beaten or bested by others; not being an instant expert. (There’s another good American trait: the desire to be instant experts. Or is that just the same old trait again?)

Discomfort breeds questioning. And if the questioning rises from a genuine desire to learn, the student will press on. A competent teacher can point the way, maybe clarify things for someone who is wavering. But if the questioning arises from an inner decision to quit (give up; change course; relieve the discomfort in the quickest, easiest way), no answer will satisfy. It’s surprising how often the decision precedes the question. But that’s because, in those cases, the question is not a question; it’s really (as I said before) a conclusion.

Truly committed students will seek answers for themselves. They’ll seek positive answers, rather than presuming the negative. They will ask and listen. But they may come honestly to different conclusions. Some might choose to move on. When that happens, we have to accept it as part of another great American tradition: freedom of choice.

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