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  • Writer's pictureSpencer Bennington

How to Apply the Five Tenets of Tae Kwon Do in a Post-COVID World

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

Courtesy. Integrity. Perseverance. Self-control. Indomitable spirit. These five tenets of Tae Kwon Do were the last things we were tested on just a couple weeks ago at the US Tae Kwon Do black belt exam after a grueling physical workout in the Florida sun. But even though our brains were fried and our doboks were drenched with sweat, no student missed a beat in explaining what these five tenets mean and how they practice them in their daily lives.

Welcome back to the Rhetorical Roundhouse blog, your home for online martial arts training and the academic study of Tae Kwon Do. Last week I discussed the importance of continuing to test yourself as a martial artist even when you are deep in the black belt ranks and offered some advice on how to frame these experiences. This week, I want to focus a bit more on the not-so-physical side of Tae Kwon Do training so that even my readers who aren't martial artists can learn to practice the five tenets in their daily life.

I realize that it's not always easy to be a good person and, in many ways, 2020 has truly tested all of us in this regard. So I think its important to share some thoughts on how the five tenets of Tae Kwon Do can be cultivated and worked at, especially at a time when many of us may be on edge, extra anxious, or processing various forms of trauma.

Let's start with courtesy.

When we teach younger students about courtesy, we often use examples of politeness or good manners. Children should address elders as sir/ma'am and say please and thank you. We encourage them to perform acts of kindness like holding open doors or volunteering to help friends/family members in need.

As adults, being courteous often is made to feel like a chore or some facade that we have to simply wear at work or in public. Partly this is because, as we grow older, we interact with more people who respond to courtesy with injury. We allow ourselves to become guarded, suspicious, and untrusting, thus making true courtesy much more difficult.

We must find a way to let this go.

Unless you would be put in a position that jeopardizes your safety or the safety of your loved ones, it is always best to assume that other people are just as scared, guarded, and anxious as you are and that underneath all of that is a person JUST LIKE YOU. Someone with hopes, fears, desires, and, I believe, goodness.

Believe me, I know that sounds naive. I get it, there truly are wicked people in this world. There are those who are clinically diagnosed as having the inability to empathize with others, no matter how much they're trained. I'll admit, that's really scary--but it's not the norm.

As for my own life, I refuse to let the 1% of dangerously unreasonable people, those who would do harm to others without remorse, dictate my actions in the world. I will continue to be charitable (to a limit) even if I suspect I'm being manipulated or used.


Because courtesy means trusting people when they say they need your help. Courtesy means believing those who claim they have been wronged or hurt without interrogating them for evidence. If someone has the strength and humility to ask for help and I can give it to them, then there's nothing left to think about.

Recently I was reflecting on how the COVID-19 pandemic has made practicing courtesy a bit more difficult. Many people are now in much closer proximity to family members, roommates, loved ones, etc and may not feel as if they have the mental or emotional energy to be courteous all the time. As for myself, I noticed that I was not extending the trust I just mentioned to everyone equally and, at times, I assumed the worst of others without actually listening to them.

I'm reminded of the classic flaw with the "golden rule." If we treat others the way we want to be treated, we aren't actually taking the time to consider their needs or desires. In addition, if we treat others based on our own metrics and then they, in turn, treat us based on their own standards of what's acceptable, we are likely to have a disconnect and breed animosity as result of different value systems.

Instead, I try to abide by Confucius's "silver rule:" Treat others as THEY wish to be treated. Listen to people. Ask them what they want. If its within your power, accommodate them. This will make it much more likely that they will return that same courtesy. Recently, I was struggling with this so I wrote a note to myself and stuck it up on the wall. It says:

Before criticizing someone else, always ask: is there something I could do differently to improve this situation? Is there something I can do to help them?

As for integrity, we tell the younger students that they should always "do the right thing even when no one is watching."

Generally, this is good advice. Again though, as we grow older, the "right thing" becomes much more hazy. As a kid, I knew I shouldn't take money that didn't belong to me, even if I was certain I wouldn't be caught (that didn't mean I always listened to that angel on my shoulder though!) As an adult, I'm constantly faced with tougher choices. Part of the impetus behind my Good Black Friday YouTube Series is to figure out how to become more of a conscientious consumer, one who actively supports businesses that fight an uphill battle against systemic racism AND capitalist nightmare-engines like Amazon. When you live in a world where you have to research how much your toilet paper consumption is contributing to global warming, which clothes you can buy that weren't stitched together by enslaved children, and what chicken sandwiches contribute to lobbying efforts to deny civil rights to friends and family, it seems like it's almost impossible to do THE right thing.

In many ways, it is.

That's because there is no single right thing--there's no one answer for how to solve all the world's problems. A few months ago, I nearly had a mental breakdown trying to shoulder it all until a friend helped me realize that I was biting off more than I could chew. So, my advice for practicing integrity is to figure out exactly what your value systems are. Note: this doesn't mean your political affiliation or religious beliefs, it doesn't mean to think about what you were raised to believe.

It means discovering what matters most to you and fighting for it. Not in the spotlight, not on your social media feed (though that helps too sometimes), but in the ways that the world needs it most. For me, it means asking a simple question: what would I change about the world if I had the power to do so?

Maybe your answer is that you'd end pollution and plastic waste. That's an admirable cause. Now, the reality is, no one person can do that. But, what you can do is routinely pick up litter in your own community, reduce waste in your own home and neighborhood, teach people about more renewable energy sources etc.

Once you know your values clearly, its not hard to scale your actions down to a local, manageable level, all the while knowing that you are contributing to your larger goals.

One final thing I'll say about integrity is this: now more than ever, especially as adults, it can actually be harder to do the right thing BECAUSE someone is watching. For example, as a white man in a suburban neighborhood, I was a bit nervous to make a public display of my support for the #blacklivesmatter movement. But, when I reflected seriously on my beliefs in equity, justice, and human rights, as well as my future goals for the Rhetorical Roundhouse Network, I felt foolish for ever hesitating to make my position known. And you know what? As soon as I did, it inspired my neighbors to voice their support as well and it strengthened our local community.

As for integrity, as a martial artist I believe:

So long as I have a voice, I will use it to speak up for those who are silenced. I will not compromise my beliefs for fear of being ridiculed. Trust that your confidence and unwavering belief will inspire others to be better.

Wow, it seems I have a bit more to say about these tenets than I thought. I'll pause for this week and continue this discussion next week by giving advice on how to apply perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit in your daily life.

One other bit of exciting news this week is that my discussion panel from this year's Martial Arts Studies Conference is now available on YouTube! In case you missed it, I've linked the presentation I gave below as well as the discussion. I was so thrilled to be a part of such an impressive panel full of really brilliant scholars and I hope you enjoy hearing their thoughts as well.


Of course please be sure to check out the latest episode of Good Black Friday featuring Chika and Ultra Kosmic 9 Bamboo Toilet Paper!


Finally, if you value martial arts education and the teaching of valuable tenets like courtesy and integrity, please help support Pil Seung Martial Arts in Blacksburg, VA as they are struggling to keep their doors open as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Any donation helps--please be sure to share widely!

That's going to do it for this week. Please check back next week for part two!

Thanks for stopping by :)


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