The jewel of adversity

We woke this morning to our first snowfall of the year. It is fresh and light. Not enough to say "winter", but enough to let us know that we are moving towards something new. As I hobbled in to the office, aching in places I didn't know I owned, I realized that one of the great things about age is that you tend to understand things differently than when you were younger. Yes, we become wiser–obviously, and maybe it is this wisdom that allows us to see answers in what we once would consider roadblocks.

On saturday I took another one of my belt tests for karate, a adventure that my son and I are thoughtfully involved in. These tests are hard, lasting 3-4 hours, and push you to your physical and mental limits. I had prepared quite well for this test, with both physical practice and mental visualization. I felt more ready than I have for any previous test and really wanted to excel, as mistake-free as possible, for my own personal satisfaction. 

During the first 15 minutes of the test, we run through basic drills and techniques, essentially to warm up. Doing a basic kick that I do every day, I kicked a little too ambitiously high and "zing!" something akin to a stabbing sensation ran through my abductor. I winced in pain – and in the immediate realization that this was going to affect everything I did for the rest of the 3-1/2 hour test. I could barely lift my leg to walk, much less kick, jump, and lunge in to deep stances. I felt the urge to be really pissed. I trained so hard, and was so prepared, and now I was going to suck.

But that's not what we are training to do. Karate teaches us that we train to perform our best through any challenge, whatever the conditions, whatever handicap we may have. We won't always have "perfect" circumstances under which we perform - or fight. I realized in that moment that the true test was not whether I could perform flawlessly under ideal conditions, but that I performed my best, under whatever conditions were prevailing.

I made it through my test, and felt like I really did quite well, all things considered. In reflecting back on it I realized that the existence of this sharp pain in my leg made me slow down ever so slightly, pay more attention to the precision of my forms and movements, and refocus my power on my arms and other areas that weren't hurting, yet. I used my other resources more to compensate for my weakened ones. I thought about the essence of my technique more, realizing that any sloppy movement would aggravate the pain. I also realized that no matter how bad the pain was, I could control it when I needed to, and endure. 

So after the test, I got my requisite Cup-a-Yo frozen yogurt, lay on the couch, iced my injuries, and thought. Karate teaches me so much about my life. I reflected back to another significant moment in my training, several months prior. I was sparring with a new partner who is larger and stronger than I am. He is an amazing kicker, with really powerful legs. During a points match he kicked the shit out of me, throwing a final side kick right in to my throat. It hurt so bad I initially thought he had crushed my wind pipe. I literally couldn't talk for several days afterwards. My first reaction was to be upset. Kicking in the throat is off-limits in any kind of sport fighting competition, even hard core MMA fights. "Why didn't HE control himself better?" And then, it hit me like a roundhouse to the head, "Why did I LET him kick me?"

It was suddenly so crystal clear: if someone is a good kicker, don't get kicked. Although I'm not as strong as he is, I am faster. My strategy became to out-maneuver his kicks and get in close where I could use my hands. My hand-strikes were faster than his. The next match we faced off on, a week later, I beat him 3-0. I still revere his kicks like I would a raging bull, but I feel like we are more evenly matched because I've learned to play to my strengths and side-step his.

So I'm still sore today, but a little couch time has allowed me to draw many parallels to my life, work, family, and relationships. If I were younger, I would probably sit on the couch and sulk, mad at the world because I wasn't allowed to fully show how well all my practice had paid off. And yet today, I am sorely happy…or happily sore. I learned more valuable lessons, and that won't fade like the pain eventually will.

In our dojo, we don't break boards for exhibition, but it is a conclusion to our testing as a way for us to learn to focus what little energy we have left in to a single, dynamic task.