What are we willing to do? and what makes a thing worthy of our effort?

Yesterday. An undersized eleven-year-old boy tests for his black belt. My daughter attends the same martial arts school, and we’ve been friends with this boy’s families since babyhood, so we are honored to attend this two-hour ritual. Two other boys of the same rank also test for black belt, two current black belts test for a higher rank, and one of the instructors tests to re-certify; the skill level in the room is monstrous.

The test begins: basic skills. Simple kicks, simple blocks, the most rudimentary of techniques – but repeated, across the room, back, back again, until sweat appears on the brows and breathing is audible. Now more: combinations of techniques. Instructions given in Korean, rapidly, once. Across the room. Back. The sweat pours. They long for breath. Belts, once tied tight, loosen and drop to the floor with the repeated motions. The skills, crisp and clean at first, begin to be desperate swipes through the air. Muscles tremble; stances falter.

The instructor pauses only to correct them, but he knows they suck oxygen as he talks. More drills: get the footwork right. It changes between the first block and the following punch; don’t get lazy or your foundation will have no strength. The students respond, struggling to keep focus, to not let their burning, quaking muscles yield to the exhaustion, to show what they have learned and practiced.

These boys, these men, have devoted countless hundreds of hours in classes, practice, tournaments; preparation at home; anxiety about this test and the many others they have endured. They have paid thousands of dollars for years of training. They pay extra for the test itself.

They demonstrate escapes, forms, grappling, sparring. Defense against multiple attackers. The “Ring of Death,” a round-robin of rotating sparring partners. The sweat pours. One teenaged boy moans in pain when his sparring partner rolls on his fingers; testing pauses momentarily to assess injury, but he rejoins the group after a brief rest. Spots of blood begin to appear on uniforms: which one is bleeding? The same boy. Testing continues. The  oldest of the group, a man in his forties, shows his weariness; he can barely continue. The instructors push him: Keep your hands up! Get in there! Keep moving! Though he wants to drop, he fights it: gives it every effort he can, and more. He rallies, he moves, he keeps his hands up, he finds strength he thought was gone. He is one of the instructors for the rest. He does not shrink from the testing.

Verbal examination. They are tested on terminology, philosophy, history and origins of their art. Each student is required to know the rank number of each instructor. They are asked: Why do you want to be a black belt? What does it mean to you?

Why would a person endure this? Not just endure: why would they seek it? Pay for it? Show up again and again, despite the effort, despite risk of harm, despite the endless repetition of basic skills, despite the tedium of continual brand-new students, fresh-faced and inexperienced, needing to be taught the very simplest traditions: We stand like this. We tie the uniform this way. We say “Yes, Sir” and “No, Sir” to the instructors.

The black belts are tested on their ability to teach. “The first six moves of this form: teach it to the lower ranks.” Knowing your own skills is not enough: leadership, and passing on the knowledge, is essential.

At the end of testing, the new black belts are congratulated, welcomed. They are told firmly that how they conduct themselves, both at the school and out in the world, in uniform and in street clothes, reflects not only on themselves, but also on their school, their instructors, and their art. They are told that when they return to class, they will be starting new: with the same, the very same, basic techniques that they learned the first day they set foot in the school. They will learn it all again – but now they will learn it in a different way. More, much more, is expected of them.

The students are exhausted, ready to drop – they have given it every ounce of themselves – but they stand, firmly, proudly, ready.

Yesterday, black belt testing.

Today, I will go to church. There will be no test, no evaluation of my skills, basic or otherwise. No one will require me to struggle and push myself beyond my comfortable limits. Anytime I want to stop and rest, I can, with no penalty, although there won’t be much need for rest, as there won’t be much exertion required. I will not sweat, pant, tremble, bleed. I will not moan in pain. I will not be asked why I am there and what it means to me. While I may be invited to teach, the invitation is general, to everyone, and it is not required of me. I will not leave exhausted.

Why do I feel I am missing a greater path?

 

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