“Yer too purty to be a lah-barrian,” a man at the gym said many years ago (I live in Texas, hence the accent). I was a medical librarian in my past career. No, it does NOT mean I filed people’s medical records. I was a straight-up librarian in a large hospital system, and my main duty was conducting research for the clinical staff. I got to research cancer treatments, surgery, nursing care—if blood and guts were involved I was pulling articles about it. When I found myself thumbing through a dermatology journal while eating a messy hamburger and not gagging I knew I had arrived.
Being a librarian was being part detective, part consultant, and part puzzle-master. With that job, however, came the burden of the decades-old stereotypes of librarians. I was afraid to wear my glasses or put my hair up lest people point and say, “Ha HA! I caught you looking like a librarian.” The “anti” librarians all seemed to be riddled with tattoos and piercings and wrote Harry Potter fan fiction, and that wasn’t me either. Don’t even get me started on all the guys with who made the “hot librarian” jokes. Ugh. I always felt like I was walking the thin line of validating society’s stereotype or disappointing people for not fitting their ill-informed mold. It was just a job, not who I am.
Some things, though, do shape who we are in addition to what we “do.” Taekwondo re-entered my life when I was in the midst of a crisis. I had completely lost faith in my capabilities and the fragile sense of self-worth that I had slowly built up over the years. For a long time I had been clinging to external sources of comfort—work, relationships, education, material possessions, appearance—hoping my “success” in those areas would prove to the world that I do deserve to continue breathing air. We know what happens when we place all our eggs in the “external stuff” basket. Coincidentally, when I stopped taekwondo as a child I started to lose who I was and what I enjoyed and instead began clinging to external sources of validation, especially approval from other people. Fast forward twenty years. I still felt like a huge unlovable failure. Sometimes we have to die to our external selves in order to truly begin to live.
When I started hanging around martial artists I noticed something—they were very comfortable in their own skin, no matter their age, gender, shape, or size. Even if their skill wasn’t top notch they enjoyed what they did and how they felt. They were respectful, kind, and very funny and easygoing when they weren’t barking orders. Their “vibration” was very high, for those of you who subscribe to the Law of Attraction. Recently one of my classmates was awarded his black belt. While soft-spoken and always smiling, even the instructors are afraid of his hard hits and swift throws. He is sixty-seven years old. If he can do it I can do it too.
I started figuring out that being a black belt wasn’t just about performing all the right moves or dominating in a sparring match. Taekwondo is just as much mental as it is physical, and the effects have followed me out into other parts of my life. Things don’t bother me as much as they used to anymore. I don’t get as caught up in the external trappings of life as I used to. I see some of the teens in my class who have black belts but don’t act like it. They’re mouthy and lack heart. At a recent tournament I saw countless examples of blatant cheating and arrogance by “seasoned” black belts. They might be able to perform beautiful forms or throw fierce kicks in a fight, but they lacked the calm humility and quiet confidence of a true black belt. Meanwhile one of my favorite little yellow belt students keeps coming back to class every week to try her hardest and never loses her determined smile. She beats any of those young men in displaying the Black Belt Mindset.
I’m little. I have skinny wrists. I’m at the age where lack of sleep shows up on my face, and it isn’t pretty. I may get my ass beaten to a pulp in a fight. I can’t always think of the right thing to say. I still get angry and I still cry once in a while. So what? I’ve gained so much confidence, trust, and faith in myself through taekwondo and other means of self-development that I feel like a new person, like the real me is starting to shine through. I won’t test for my black belt until another year or so, but I feel like the biggest hurdle has already been crossed—the sparring match with my own doubt, guilt, and fears. Sometimes they come back to challenge me, but these days I can usually beat them back into the shadows in round one. In the yoga world we talk about taking our practice “off the mat” and into our daily lives. The same thing can be said for taekwondo—we might only wear our belts in the dojang, but our attitude encircles our hearts and minds every day.
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