Part 2: Perseverance, Self-Control, and Indomitable Spirit for a Post-COVID World
Last week I discussed the first two tenets of Tae Kwon Do: Courtesy and Integrity, particularly how we can think about applying them in our daily lives. This can be challenging in a world where everything seems so needlessly complicated, but it can be done if you are sure of your own value system and always willing to grow and learn.
Welcome back to Rhetorical Roundhouse! This week I'm going to discuss the remaining three tenets of Tae Kwon Do (unless I get too sleepy again in which case you'll take what you get and not pitch a fit!) Let's dive right in shall we?
Let's start with perseverance.
This is a simple enough one to explain to younger students: when things get hard, do not quit. For kids in martial arts classes, this usually means refusing to give up on the 9th pushup or learning how to improve after a poor performance on a belt test. Perseverance in these examples means facing hardships and adversity head on for the purpose of becoming better through the struggle.
As adults, I think we still cling to this idea. For example, JFK famously sold us the romantic narrative that we choose to do things like go to the moon,
...not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win...
On some level, this interpretation of perseverance is admirable, honorable, and desirable. We want to be subject to the Ancient Greek concept of the agon, the beautiful struggle, the kind of pressure that shapes a lump of coal into a diamond...
But those situations are largely a product of our collective imagination.
Let me clarify--hard work and determination are good things. Refusing to quit when things get hard can be a good thing. But thinking that every struggle is somehow going to improve our lives in the long run is a dangerous belief for your health and well-being.
Just like I mentioned in my discussion of integrity it's more important to understand your own personal values before you decide what's worth quitting and what's not. Let's face it, there are a lot of things that demand our time and energy as we get older--and the list only gets longer. The one thing I've learned from my COVID-19 quarantine experience is that, too often, I've been unwilling to say "no" or quit on any of them.
And that made me a terribly unhappy, stressed, and unhealthy person.
During the first weeks/months of quarantine, I had significantly less pressure on all sides. Fewer obligations to travel for work, not as many requests to go places or spend time doing things I didn't really want to do...and in that time it became quite clear which aspects of my own life mattered most to me.
These things: family, martial arts, education, charity--these are things that I will continue to fight for and never give up on. Other, less important things are simply a drain on my energy and time and keep me from accomplishing the things I really want to do.
So when it comes to perseverance, be selective. You only have so much of yourself to commit--its time to figure out the things you can afford to quit. Ultimately, it will only help you reach your most important goals at a faster rate.
How about self-control? This one seems pretty straightforward, right?
Sometimes we teach younger students that self-control means choosing to restrict yourself in ways that you know will benefit you. Eating one cookie is a treat, but eating an entire sleeve of double-stuffed Oreos might indicate a lack of self-control.
I think a better martial arts example actually comes from Spider-Man. Well, that is to say, this was the hardest lesson Spider-Man ever had to learn:
With great power comes great responsibility.
Peter Parker was still relatively new to having superpowers and hadn't adopted the caped-crusading, crime-fighting mentality yet. Instead, he was interested in using his powers for personal gain in professional wrestling matches. When a show manager cheated Peter out of his fair share from the fight, he was so upset that he lost his sense of justice. When that same manager was robbed, Peter had an opportunity to stop the crime, but he allowed his own desire for vengeance to cloud his judgment--he let the robber escape.
Peter interpreted the world unfolding before his as serving just him--this was cosmic justice, payback for the wrong that was done to him. But, as cliche as it sounds, two wrongs don't make a right. Peter learned this in the worst way possible when he realized that his choice to do nothing resulted in the murder of his beloved Uncle Ben, the man who tried to teach him about responsibility in the first place.
Why am I rehashing the tragic backstory of Spider-Man? Because power is defined in his narrative as the physical prowess a student of martial arts might develop after years of training. Some of us walk around the "I wish he would" fantasy in our heads, longing for the day when we get to intervene in such a blatant crime, demonstrating clear lines between heroes and villains...
And yet again we're living in a pixelated dream.
Martial artists must think about self-control in a physical way, sure. But usually we think about things like "how do I practice this technique in sparring without hurting anyone" or "I better avoid this confrontation because I don't want anyone to get hurt." We understand the pain of physical trauma because we play in that realm regularly. We develop a healthy reverence for it.
But martiality is not the only kind of power which demands responsibility. Instead, we must focus on the other talents we have. For me, I've studied words, writing, and rhetoric, for about half my life--pretty much the same amount of time I've been training in Tae Kwon Do. What this means is that I'm dangerously persuasive and REALLY good and getting people to see my perspective. The other thing it means is I'm pretty talented at crafting hurtful things to say if I really want to.
But I should never want to.
Just like I never want to physically harm someone with my awesome roundhouse kick, I should never want to put someone in their place with my wit, trick someone with my charisma, or harm someone's spirit with my words. Instead, just like I do with martial arts, I should find ways to use my power responsibly to benefit myself and others.
In this way, I would encourage to you think of self-control as an assessment of your great powers and a reminder to use them responsibly, for good, for constructive purposes, and as selflessly as you can.
Finally, one of the trickiest phrases in all of Tae Kwon Do, indomitable spirit.
Honestly, I find this one a bit difficult to explain to young students. On the one hand, it sounds a lot like perseverance. Master Vahid at US Tae Kwon Do explains that, no matter what, your spirit can never die. I take that to mean that their is a part of us, call it your will or your soul or maybe even just your inner truth, that can never be taken from us.
In Tae Kwon Do, we embody this concept through the kihap, the deep diaphragmatic yell associated with our strikes. Sure, yelling helps you regulate your breathing as you do a lot of exercise--but I feel like there's a psychological/emotional component to it as well. There's something raw and pure about a kihap. Some part of me wants to yell confidently in my own way, unafraid of the judgment of those around me...
It seems the recurring theme of these posts has actually been "getting to know yourself." Because when it comes to indomitable spirit, no one can tell you what it is and what it feels like but YOU.
What is the cornerstone of your belief system? What are some things that you wouldn't be whole without? What are the beliefs that you would gladly lay down your life for?
Again, that last question brings us back into the realm of Hollywood fantasy, but its actually a worthwhile thought experiment when you're trying to figure out what to let go of in your life and what to cling tighter to.
For me, over the past few months, it's become quite apparent to me that I'm not motivated by money or fame--instead, I care most about knowing that I've done all that I can to help those around me. I feel uncomfortable and unsettled knowing that I have so many things I want out of life and others, perhaps people even more deserving, have so little. This is what defines me, and it is this indomitable spirit that motivates me to persevere, that forces me to reflect on self-control, that keeps me honest and maintains my integrity, and that allows me to extend courtesy into the world.
I hope that you can find a way to get in touch with your own indomitable spirit so that the rest of these tenets fall into place in your own life.
If these kinds of lessons sound important to you, consider supporting a martial arts school in need. I and many other students learned these valuable lessons from Master Rupert Cox at Pil Seung Taekwondo in Blacksburg, VA. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this school is at risk of shutting down.
But you can help by donating today! AND, your donation can do double duty!! If you donate over $10 I will pledge volunteer hours to the charity of your choice! Simply message me directly or post the name of your charity as you donate.
For a donation of $10, I will pledge one hour of service to the charity of your choice
For $25 I will pledge THREE hours of time to your charity.
For $50 I pledge SEVEN HOURS of time to your charity
Donations of $100 or more earn FIFTEEN HOURS OF VOLUNTEER TIME for your charity!
Let's work together to help Master Rupert Cox and whatever cause it is that you deem worthy :)
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Thanks for reading--see you next week!