Why learn a martial art?

Melancholics have a hard time communicating the value of their interests and ideals. We’ve learned through experience that we are in a minority, that the things which motivate us do not tend to motivate others and vice versa. I was amazed to learn that ‘everyone is doing it’ is actually an implicit motivator for some people, designating the gold standard in life-choices. I’ve only ever interpreted such statements ironically; and though I follow the crowd in many instances, knowing that ‘everyone is doing it’ counts as a disincentive.

But one of the themes of this blog is to begin communicating the value I find in my various, seemingly useless interests, pastimes, and ideals. In other words, can I explain to you why I do things that give me neither money nor social status nor an efficient path to commonly identifiable individual or social goods such as ‘getting fit’ and ‘making friends’?

This time the topic is martial arts. Specifically: why have I spent more than half my life putting time and effort into something that is unlikely to ever prove ‘useful’?

I started learning Taekwondo as a young teenager after my parents gave me a choice: either join the local TKD class or sign up with the local soccer team. Soccer is probably fun if you are somewhat fit, coordinated, and sociable. But since I was none of those things I chose TKD.

The training did improve my fitness, strength, and flexibility, but it did so under the guise of learning a deeper skill – the ability to defend myself against other people.

After a couple of years a friend introduced me to a very different martial art, a rare, difficult style of kungfu from Southern China that was taught informally within a closed group. It was immediately clear that this style of kungfu was deeper than anything I had learned in TKD. The training was much more complicated and intense, the tactics far more committed and aggressive, and the techniques significantly more powerful.

I’ve been training in this art for more than sixteen years, and my motivation, understanding, and interest have changed a great deal in that time. Sometimes I wonder what I get out of it, why I am still motivated. Is it simply that having put so much in, it would be a waste to stop now? Or has it become so habitual that I no longer need a conscious motive?

My recent post on violence and the masculine ideal helped bring out an answer, an enduring value in martial arts that is independent of any particular style or any degree of proficiency. That value is often described simply as ‘self-defense’, but is better described in a more nuanced way as the practised ability to ward off and resist violence.

This is the lasting appeal of the martial arts: they train skills and techniques that in and of themselves increase our self-mastery. They develop latent physical and mental potential in the paradigmatic and pragmatic context of human violence.

Paradoxically, evidence suggests that learning a martial art may make people less inclined to engage in violent behaviour. Anecdotally the logic is obvious: people who learn martial arts spend many hours training techniques and practising them in a controlled environment with willing participants. If you just wanted to get in fights, you’d be better off joining a football team or being obnoxious in popular night spots after 2am.

For me, self-mastery is the core value behind martial arts practice, and provides an answer to the existential challenge of unjust human aggression. I do not want to find myself ever the victim of an attack that could have been avoided or defended with a reasonable degree of preparation on my part. Unlikely as such a scenario is, given the low risk lifestyle of a philosopher who’d rather be enjoying sleep at 3am than getting glassed in a drunken pub fight, I nonetheless have the pleasure and the challenge of training these same skills for their own sake.

The development of these skills has indeed been one of the most challenging and rewarding things in my life. It has been a more consistent part of my life than any other interest, occupation, or training. It has been a source of inspiration, frustration, achievement and dismay, especially for someone whose passion for the art has always outstripped his aptitude. I can’t imagine life without it, and yet my efforts and dedication will always feel insufficient. It is humbling to think that what I get out of it is limited by what I have put in. There will always be more I could have put in, and I can only admit fault in being a less than ideal exemplar of the art.

Perhaps that is why the value of this ideal is hard to communicate – I keep returning to the subject of my failure and inadequacy. But ask yourself whether you have something in your life that makes you want to persevere and work hard in full awareness of your faults? Is there anything that makes you feel inspired and humbled at the same time? Do you have something into which you can keep investing while knowing that the returns will never feel like ‘enough’?

Without exaggerating the hopelessness of the situation, I think this is where philosophy and martial arts coincide. Whether you seek to master a skill or know the truth, you’ll find the horizon always stretching out before you, always out of reach. My teacher tells me he is always learning, and perhaps that is the key to such pursuits: to love the path, and find comfort in being someone who learns rather than someone who has just arrived.

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What makes an endeavour shallow?

Due to relatively popular demand (1 counts as popular here; besides ‘popular’ simple means ‘of the people’, and I happen to know that the commenter in question is people).

As I was saying: people have demanded that I expand on my previous post, in which I created a dichotomy of shallowness and depth which though clearly insightful left some questions unanswered.

What is it, specifically, that makes an endeavour shallow?

While it might at first seem that the shallow/deep dichotomy is entirely relative, there are objective limitations to the relativism in human terms.  For example, as our commenter pointed out:

Even the ocean is both deep and shallow depending on your perspective.

However, we are all bound by a particular perspective – that of a human being. And despite the diversity in the normal range of human height, we are not so different that the question of depth of water is completely relative.  Depending on the context, if someone asks whether the water is deep or shallow, we tend to discern their meaning and arrive at the correct response quite easily.  It is only when the context is lacking that we are unable to offer a meaningful response.

People often take clauses such as ‘depending on your perspective’ to imply such a variety of perspectives that objective assessment becomes meaningless.  ‘Depending on your perspective’ starts, somewhat paradoxically, to imply a kind of ‘view from nowhere’, such that we begin to feel as though deep and shallow can have no real meaning since there is no truly objective perspective from which to make a valid assessment.

But ultimately, the fact that the terms are relative is not a new phenomenon, the fact that people have been meaningfully asking and answering questions about depth, makes the relativist critique somewhat redundant.  It’s a little like pointing out that units of measurement such as the gram or the ounce are in fact arbitrary, as though this should have some practical implication on the practice of weighing things.

In light of this brief analysis, we can return to the more difficult question of what makes an endeavour (metaphorically) shallow?

In my experience, the metaphor of depth and shallowness applied to human affairs is likewise relative, in that it amounts to a criticism or observation dependent on the insight or experience of another person.  For example, if I describe my thesis topic to my PhD supervisor, he may quite justifiably recognise that my knowledge of the field is not as deep as it ought to be in order to complete my thesis successfully.  This is analogous to pointing out that the water at the end of the jetty is too shallow for swimmers to dive into safely.

But my supervisor can only critique my knowledge as shallow because his knowledge is deeper, by which we mean his knowledge is more detailed, thorough, and far-reaching.  My supervisor in turn represents a standard of scholarship that is established and maintained across the whole academic discipline.  So even without my supervisor telling me my knowledge is shallow, there would still be an objective standard of knowledge against which my knowledge could be measured.

The epitome of a ‘shallow endeavour’ then, is one in which the efforts, knowledge, everything that makes up the endeavour itself, are insufficient for the stated goal.  Which is not to say that shallow endeavours are completely useless. No, they meet the goal to a shallow degree.  A little reflection should bring to mind suitable examples.  Take, for example, an online poll presented by a media organisation on some topical issue.  Here’s one I just found on the important question of whether the readers tend to recline their seats while on airplane flights: http://specials.msn.com/more-polls.aspx

Regardless of what the results say, the poll is almost worthless.  Not only is there no way of knowing if the participants are representative of the general population, but the poll is also likely to suffer from self-selection bias; that is, people who feel strongly about the issue are more likely to respond to the poll than those who don’t care.  All we can really conclude from the poll is the apparent reclining preferences of those readers of the website who feel strongly enough to click on the poll in the first place.

The second poll provides an even clearer example of the problems: the poll asks whether Obama is vacationing too much, and it turns out that an overwhelming 66% believe that he is, and he ought instead to be working.  Even the poll question itself states that ‘The President’s leisure time doesn’t sit well with his detractors’, which, one might think, would imply that his detractors would be more motivated to respond to online polls on the issue.  Again, all this result can tell us is that 66% of those who clicked on the poll after seeing it on the website believe, or profess to believe, that Obama is having too many holidays.  It doesn’t tell us how representative of the general population this is, though it may be possible for the owners of the website to work out what percentage of page views included a response to the poll.  Even then, the result would not tell them what their readers opinions are, but merely the opinions of those of their readers who care enough to click on a worthless poll.  In that sense, the real value of the poll is for the owners of the website to determine the level of interest in any given topic among their readers, assuming a correlation between level of interest and level of motivation to click on the poll.

In terms of shallow endeavours, these kinds of worthless polls are most egregious when people attempt, either wittingly or unwittingly, to use them as evidence of broader public opinion on an issue.  As marketing tools and gauges of reader interest, they may be more valuable; but rarely are they presented as such.  What makes this such an excellent example of a shallow endeavour is the failure to think or ask questions beyond the superficial appearance of valuable data.  On a shallow level, such polls appear to have the same merit as legitimate polls.  It is only by going deeper, by asking questions and seeking to understand in more detail, that a person may begin to tell the difference between shallowness and depth, value and farce.