The words respect and honor feel archaic anymore—honor more-so but both words have a vital role for modern man but unfortunately aren’t uttered enough.
A few months ago I started learning Muay Thai at a local fight club in Singapore. As long as I can remember I’ve wanted to learn a martial art but it was only recently that I actually took the first step. When I was younger I enjoyed flag football but wasn’t allowed to stick with it because it was deemed too violent and instead I was allowed to participate in track and field, which I mostly enjoyed. But I knew that if flag football was deemed too violent, martial arts certainly would be. In junior high and high school, those hyper-tribal years dominated by packs of hormonal kids all vying for attention and status, I was routinely either under threat of a fight or I was in one and I always wished I knew how to fight well. My primary motivation for wanting to learn a martial art was to be able to defend myself and hell, what 15 year-old boy doesn’t think Bruce Lee is the shit?
As an adult, I know realize there is so much more to truly learning a martial art. I’m not talking about learning how to kick a man’s head off his shoulders. I’m talking about learning self-control, improving one’s physical and mental health, and most importantly, learning respect and honor for one’s opponent.
This morning I was reading an article by Sam Yang, who describes himself as “a martial artist, critical thinker, and street-level philosopher.” The article is titled The Novice, the Amateur, and the Expert. In the article, he says this:
Jiu-jitsu is a social contract with physical consequences. You are not the only thing that exists, your actions affect others, your actions go beyond yourself. Not only your own interests and feelings, but the social contract of jiu-jitsu binds you to the feelings and rights of others.
In the quote above, you can easily replace “jiu-jitsu” with many other forms of martial art and the statement remains true.
In a lot of Asian cultures, the community is the primary social unit, rather than the individual, as is the case for many Western cultures, especially the US. In my Muay Thai class, I see small manifestations of this all the time. For example, at the end of the class, most of the students gather together in one group to recover and shoot-the-shit for a few minutes. Many times the instructor will be in the center of the group expanding on things from class, or reliving one of his recent fights (he competes in the pro circuit). I noticed this communal behavior actually by noticing I always placed myself outside the group to do my own thing.
Another example came when the instructor was telling the group about a recent loss he suffered and he talked about how his opponent utilized elbow strikes. He said that our local gym doesn’t train elbows and that is something we need to learn as a group. For me, my first instinct in a situation like this would be to think to myself “that guy kicked my ass using elbows, I need to learn how to use and defend against elbow strikes.” In both cases, it’s my acculturated rugged individualism speaking.
In the first few weeks of sparring, I thought only in terms of myself, ‘how do I parry his jab,’ or ‘how do I force his high-guard so I can strike low.’ But as I learn and develop, I’ve started to think in terms of us, ‘if I throw a round-house to his body, how will he respond.’ I am beginning to learn that the individual facing me is not just an opponent to strike, but rather he is an opponent with his own agenda, with his own goals, and most importantly; someone with whom I have an unspoken contract of respect and honor. Yes, I want to effectively punch him in the (padded) face but I’m not there to hurt him. I’m there to learn from him and he from me. We’re sparring to test our skills against a real, live person who strikes back, as opposed to a swinging, lifeless punching-bag that moves and sways in a predictable and non-threatening manner.
The bow and handshake is your agreement. Train with respect, and respect the Other.
More boys in the US should be members of dojos that follow a similar creed. Parents who worry that learning a martial art will lead to unprovoked violence from their young boy are ill-informed. If the right dojo with the right instructor is chosen, the exact opposite will happen; the child will develop the discipline, confidence, and skills to be able to handle themselves both mentally and physically in the face of adversity.
A good dojo teaches the value of respect and honor—words that need to see a resurgence in the modern lexicon.