The Kung Fu Paradox

Some PMs and e-mails I’ve received from readers regarding a post I made last month and the rather detailed conversations that followed, specifically on the topic of fighting, have inspired me to write in more depth about this apparently controversial notion that it is more manly (macho, studly, hunkish, whatever) to avoid violence than to beat the snot out of someone. While I totally get why so many people are under the impression that a propensity towards violence comes part and parcel with machismo (I mean, just look around you), I’m convinced that in reality, there are very few good reasons to become violent and I can earnestly assure you that proving your masculinity is not one of them.

It is an absolute though seemingly impossible fact that as a direct result of having studied martial arts for the past two decades, I have been able to successfully avoid ever having to use violence against another person (outside of sanctioned tournaments, of course). Indeed, it’s a bit of a paradox that someone who has spent so much time learning to fight acquired at the same time the ability to avoid fights altogether. In the interest of spreading a piece of wisdom of the ages, I shall attempt to explain this particular apparent contradiction.

Way of the Ironic Fist

Zen is well known for its paradoxical riddles meant to inspire deep meditation. Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?

Buddhist monks, who ponder such riddles continually, have a much easier time than Westerners of understanding a notion like one’s fighting skill being inversely proportionate to his need to fight. To them, this concept makes complete sense, whereas most Americans would blurt out between swills of Budweiser that developing a skill you never put to practical use is a stupid waste of time. This contrast in point of view is significant. Already we begin to see the great differences in Western and Eastern thought that cause Zen concepts to elude so many of my peers.

The truth of the matter is that my martial arts training is put into practical application every single day. I have never had the occasion to assault a stranger on the street, yet I benefit each day from what my Tae Kwon Do and Kung Fu instructors have taught me. It will surprise no one when I say that learning a martial art is far more than just learning to fight. The important factor, however – and the area in which the paradox lies – is that it is directly from learning the science and philosophy of combat that we gain the knowledge required to completely remove violence from our lives.

Obviously, volumes could be written on this topic, but I’ll do my best to break it down into several blog-size chunks for easy digestion.

The Nature of Confidence

My Tae Kwon Do teacher – Grandmaster Park Poong Suh – used to tie our new belts around our waists when he presented them to us. It was something that always gave me a sense of indescribable pride – that this great master would humble himself enough to tie my belt was something beyond words for me. One time, as he was wrapping my newly earned red belt around me, he told me a little anecdote in his endearingly broken English that helped me begin to understand this duality of martial arts. The conversation went something like this:

Master Park: You know, Kirk, this red belt. Soon you black belt.

Me: Thank you, Kwanjangnym.

Master Park: (chuckling) My students always… always when yellow belt, green belt… always wanting to fight. Wearing uniform outside. You know?

Me: Yes, sir.

Master Park: Then, they blue belt and they coming to class more and more. They no bragging. Not as much. They earn red belt and then… what… they no fighting out in street. Right? They no needing to fight stranger! Right? Hm?

Me: (nodding in agreement) Why do you think that is, Master?

Master Park: (chuckling again) Because they know. They confident. Big dog not care what yap-yap dog think. Right?

Me: Right, sir.

Master Park: You red belt. You Park’s Tae Kwon Do red belt! They nothing. They not earn this belt. Why not? You no care because now you busy earning black belt. You see?

Me: Yes, sir.

Master Park: Most time, no reason fighting in street. Tournament fighting, you know, tournament fighting good for stamina, good for practice… balance. Street fighting… why? Just trouble.

Me: Yes, sir.

Master Park: (laughing) You go to jail! Then you fighting all time!

What I took from that conversation was that confidence is the key – not something as simple and empty as unchecked arrogance, mind you, but rather a self-assurance that transcends the need to prove itself. What I’m talking about is an acute awareness of one’s self, the violent world in which one lives, and the absolute nature of combat. A long-studied understanding of these things and how they intertwine creates the very paradox that makes up the topic of this post and at the same time provides the solution.

Fear is at Fault

Of all the various reasons one might find to get into a physical altercation with another person, there is always the same emotion at the core: fear. Obviously, the fear for one’s own safety or the safety of loved ones could easily cause a person to become violent (and is, of course, a scenario which would quickly bring me out of my ordinarily non-violent temperament). But even fights over such sophomoric things as spilled beer or rude clumsiness are, at their basest level, all about fear. Fear of not living up to a certain image. Fear of emasculation. Fear of self-loathing. When one guy pounds another guy over a parking spot or a silly wise-crack or some similar bullshit, it isn’t because he was required as a self-respecting human being to do so; it’s because he’s afraid that people might otherwise become convinced that he is something less than the cleft-chinned Adonis he’s built himself up as in his own mind.

Trust me, no one ever beat anyone else up out of an inflated sense of self-assurance.

Environmental Factors

There is also something to be said for the idea we have an active hand in creating our own realities. To that end, I would make it clear that much of the reason I do not find myself in situations where I am forced to utilize 20 years of martial arts training is that I do not frequent the places in which such scenarios might arise. I’d go so far as to speculate that the same aspect of my personality that makes me the non-violent man I am is simultaneously responsible for my lack of interest in events and places which spawn violence. For example, I don’t drink alcohol and have no desire to go into a bar. It’s not coincidental that the only place I ever came close to hurting someone was inside a dive bar in east hill Kent, the armpit of Western Washington.

The best and simplest way to win a fight is to avoid it completely, after all.

Patience, Grasshopper

Acquiring any level of mastery in a martial art requires patience, perseverance and an indomitable spirit. Just as Master Park’s young students (myself included) always felt the need to flaunt their minuscule abilities early on, by the time they had reached a level of some expertise, they had also acquired the patience, perseverance and an indomitable spirit to deal with just about any hot-headed situation without having to resort to the final option of tearing someone a new ass and handing them the old one.

All of Life is Combat

What it all comes down to is that through a devout study of hand to hand combat and a learned understanding of the natural human origins of same, I have paradoxically been able to realize how completely unnecessary violence actually is. Everything in life is a battle, from snagging freelance clients to raising my kids to getting the plaque off my teeth. It’s nice to have 20 years of practice fighting, so I have the confidence, wisdom, and patience to know when it’s absolutely necessary to become violent.

Fortunately, it’s hardly ever absolutely necessary.

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About kirkstarr

I draw pictures for a living.
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14 Responses to The Kung Fu Paradox

  1. Marque says:

    Excellent post! Really really good! My daughter took martial arts for a while and LOVED it. She got, I think either an orange or yellow belt – I think it was both together. We moved and she stopped for a while. After a month or so she begged to go back to it. She said she could not manage her anger correctly without it. She was always mad. I am going to start taking it with her…again…I love it! And,,yes you could kick their ass!!!! You may not need to ever – but it's a damn good thing to know!! 🙂

  2. Jenn says:

    I agree…excellent post.

  3. kelli says:

    My daughter took too…she got through her purple belt…and my husband has 3 blacks in various styles. I am SO not into street fighting, but I love to watch sanctioned boxing. Not the Ultimate Fighting stuff because that's too 'street like' for me…but the pure sport of boxing…and the classic old matches? Ali, Frazier, Foreman? Love it. But there aren't many that share that sentiment anymore. lol great post.

  4. [Wonderful post] Kirk, just wonderful. I love the story of you getting your red belt. People like your Grandmaster are rare and should be held close and dear. Their lessons are the ones we walk with our entire lives.

  5. IG says:

    "Confidence is the key…no one ever beat anyone else up out of an inflated sense of self-assurance." Yeah!Kirk, I hope your wife won't mind too much (and shh, don't tell my husband) but I think I just fell in love with you. This post is genius. Beginning to end, heartbeat and goosebumps. You rock.

  6. bouche says:

    Damn, I miss Tae Kwon Do. I even miss the brutal (at leas to me they were) warm-up and cool down sessions… I only got as high as my yellow, but I learned quite a bit while getting it. What league are you in, WTA or USTU or another? There's a lot about it I miss. Not only was it self defense, it seemed it also served as defense from self. More than control of force, it's having a greater control over life and how we deal with it, just as you've stated. It's done a lot of good for me and how I've handled situations. My friend's a third degree black belt, I may ask if he'd mind me practicing with him from time to time.

  7. Brown Suga' says:

    What a wonderful post. And I agree with what Islandgirl said. ;)I wanted to go for martial-arts training, but my parents insisted I go for dance classes instead. I do get angry, but my most common reaction is to walk away from fights and not show my anger openly. I simply allow my anger to dissipate by avoiding the situation altogether. People call me "complacent" but my usual response is: "There's a lot less damage that happens this way."

  8. lizzy says:

    Big dog not care what yap-yap dog think. Right?absolutely brilliant

  9. Well said. I'm so tired of people saying "Oooh…I wouldn't want to meet *you* in a dark alley!" I just smile awkwardly. They don't understand at all.

  10. jaypo says:

    Hey, Kirk, me yr. newbie friend, but I see some of my other buds up there. 🙂 When I first started reading this fabulous post I also thought, "Confidence is the key" because when you're confident, people who want to pick on others don't choose you. They look for a victim. I trained in boxing for a couple of years, long before Million Dollar Baby. My coach taught us the value of knowing when to walk away from confrontation. He also taught us that if you can't so something well slowly, you're not gonna be able to do it fast.I was good and can take care of myself. I know how to "rumble" as my coach said. Because of that, I have confidence and ease of movement none of my women friends have. My training feels pretty complete the way it is, and I don't need to break someone's nose to validate it!

  11. Austin1234 says:

    Dude, you are the big dog, brilliant post!Thanks.

  12. Big dog not care what yap-yap dog think
    You can be certain I am going to forward this post to many with whom I work out at the gym. I'd noticed the paradox that the bigger the muscles in the gym, the more they can lift, teh gentler the nature and the easier it is for them to avoid arguments.
    I have been discussing the United States imperialistic stance on invasions for the greater good and it occured to me without actually knowing what I was saying that if we took only a small portion of the monies we used to invade Iraq and used itto train military persoannel , honed hteri skills of all kinds of combat, the less need there would be to invade or feel afraid. Many men, (my husband included) said five start generals would not go for this. They'd rather send a green narely functional 18 year-old with apenchant to feelmacho by blowing things up over to 'protect' us, then have an experienced soldier who knows when to fight and when to stand down just 'languishing' Gosh, there is so much in this post to deliberate, especially when it is applied to Iraq or any war. Why are soldiers all on prozac these days? Because their core belief, "fight equals might" has been proven false.
    This is brillant, Kirk. Truly.

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