The tall, grey-haired white belt sighed with frustration. Adults in our small dojang are few and far between, so when one shows up I make a beeline for them, try to get to know them, and make them feel welcome. I was waiting for the advanced class to start, so I was chatting with this man about his upcoming orange belt test and what he had learned so far. He had been meticulously practicing fundamental blocks in the white belt class and was struggling with getting the movements just right.
I remember that frustrating feeling when learning blocks as a white belt. Inside-to-outside middle block was one of the hardest things to master. How could a simple twist of the elbow and flick of the wrist be so damn complicated? Suddenly I didn’t know my left from my right, and my brain felt like it was trying to wrap itself around quantum physics. Girl, bye.
“It gets better,” I assured him. “It just takes time and practice. You’ll be frustrated for a while. I still feel like a dumbass with some of the stuff I have to do.”
Sometimes we just have to sit with discomfort, whether it is frustration, grief, uncertainty, or feeling like a dumbass. We can’t bypass it or take a shortcut. We can’t wish it away or admonish ourselves for our sins of omission. We just have to get through it.
The discomfort of not knowing and stumbling as we learn can be an opportunity to think outside the box and deepen our understanding of an unfamiliar concept. I was recently working with a group of nurses on a communication tool they commonly use when calling physicians or during shift changes. This time, however, we were using the tool with a non-clinical scenario. The nurses remarked how weird it felt to use the tool out of their normal context. Suddenly they weren’t the experts, and that felt very uncomfortable. They had to think differently and be more mindful of how and what they communicated than they typically do when they are in the hospital. Hopefully they now have a deeper understanding of how they communicate when sharing vital information about their patients.
Not knowing can also be an excellent lesson in humility. Getting a black belt is a great ego boost, don’t get me wrong, but much of BEING a black belt is realizing what I DON’T know and adding to the list of things I need to work on. If I knew everything and did everything perfectly that would get boring after a while. Not knowing means I have room to grow and opportunities to see my practice with a fresh perspective. It’s kind of fun to go back to techniques I learned as a color belt and tweak them with the skill I now have as a black belt. It’s like getting to learn what I love to do all over again. I still have so far to go. At least I am a self-aware dumbass.
I have no doubt my new white belt friend will be practicing his blocks with great effort and concentration over the next week. He will work hard and try his best, which ultimately will make him a better black belt than if he just breezes through the motions. The learning process he is building now will be a foundation for him as he moves up the ranks and learns more complicated kicks, sparring techniques, and self-defense. If he’s anything like me, he will have many more moments of feeling like a dumbass, and that’s okay. It will make that moment of realizing he mastered something so much sweeter.
Nothing, and I mean nothing has helped me practice presence better than taekwondo. This month I go all hippie in the dojang and discuss how the martial arts student can use their poomsae, kata, or other type of form to quiet the mind, focus the body, and ultimately improve their practice.
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“Keep your heart open,” my mom said with a fake-sappy smile as I hugged her good-bye at the airport last week.
“Oh gross, don’t let that be the last thing you say to me!” I said. Since Mom and I primarily speak in sarcasm and South Park references, we both knew it was a joke. A few days earlier and after several glasses of wine, I had admitted to my parents that I rejoined an online dating site that I’ve used in the past, so Mom was probably just half-heartedly teasing me about the reservations I expressed about dating again (although I sensed a glimmer of seriousness in her voice). Now I didn’t actually rejoin the site after several glasses of wine–that was merely brought on by a short bout of temporary loneliness and boredom, a blip of having my guard down in my otherwise very busy (and guarded) life.
I was genuinely curious to see if my feelings had changed since I published my “Love is Like Grape Soda” post on Valentine’s Day. At the time of that post I had absolutely no interest in dating or getting into a relationship after being out of a serious relationship for nearly a year. I didn’t dislike love or relationships. I regarded it as a neutral, non-meaningful entity, much the same way as I regard grape soda: I don’t really like it or dislike it. I simply can’t be bothered to care. It doesn’t interest me. I fully support other people’s decision to drink themselves sick on grape soda, but none for me, thank you. I don’t know if I’ve ever even had grape soda.
I’ve been out on a few dates, talked to a few guys, and have had a nice time. The men were warm, funny, good looking, and accomplished, and I’ve enjoyed some great conversations…and I also didn’t feel any connection, spark, whatever, and I doubt they did either. I haven’t heard from any of them in a while, and for once, I’m not upset about it. At first I actually felt pleased at my feeling of no-feeling because I proved to myself that I had broken my habit of instantly falling for whichever guy happened to be nice to me and putting them on a pedestal while devaluing my own worth. It truly is a case of “It’s not you, it’s me.” I am not going to force myself into a relationship just because I’m lonely or just because a man pays attention to me for a brief moment in time.
Maybe at this point for me love is less like grape soda and more like popcorn and ice cream. I’m interested, but not so much that I’m willing to pig out. I like popcorn and ice cream and even have both in my house, but…still…meh. I forget they’re there. I don’t get the allure. I roll my eyes when people say they’re giving up ice cream for Lent. I don’t understand how people go absolutely apeshit over the free popcorn at the hospitals where I work. There’s even a sweets shop in my city called “Popcorn and Ice Cream,” but I have yet to walk through its doors. I like popcorn and ice cream more than I like grape soda and even crave a taste now and then, but I don’t want to commit to a whole bag or a whole carton.
(If love were like Doritos and cookie ice cream sandwiches washed down with cabernet, on the other hand, I’d be married by now.)
Then it happened a few more times–that feeling of no-feeling– and I was struck with a confusing and profound sadness. While these dates had proven that I can wait to see if someone is right for me rather than jumping prematurely into a relationship and hoping for the best, it’s also hinted to me that perhaps I’ve become so independent and self-sufficient that I am not capable of sharing space, time, energy, and love with a man. It has proven to me what I’ve been casually tossing around since my tongue-in-cheek Valentine’s Day post: I want to be single and alone. I cannot have a relationship again, at least for the foreseeable future. It’s over. I’m done. That part of me is dead…or okay, maybe undead and waiting to come back years from now. It wasn’t the loneliness or longing for a relationship that made me sad–it was the absence of that longing that confused me and broke my heart just a little.
There is a part of me that is afraid if I enter into a relationship again I will lose the gifts taekwondo has given me: confidence, self-respect, independence. The feeling I get in taekwondo class feels so damn good that I don’t want to let anything bring down my high. It’s been my savior and my drug. I don’t want to lose that unique feeling of elation I get in class. It’s a high that lasts longer than any kiss or coveted text message.
I don’t want to go back to being the Old Me. I don’t like who I was when I was in relationships. I was needy, self-conscious, self-deprecating, and sad. I let men treat me like dirt. Rejection destroyed me. I didn’t have the peace that I have now as a single and unattached woman, and if relationships only bring out the worst in me then I want no part of them. I’d like to think I’ve changed enough that this time around things would be different, and I think most of the men out there are genuinely good guys, but without solid proof it’s hard to want to take the risk.
Several years ago a priest asked me if I considered the thought that God might want me to be single. I was furious and felt like he was giving me a death sentence. Now, after many years and many more emotional growth spurts, I’m starting to wonder if there might be a grain of truth to his question. I’ve considered the thought, and at this point, I’ve accepted it if that is indeed God’s plan for me.
I’m okay with it now. I would rather be alone than stressed out over whether a man approved of me or not, whether he was attracted to me, whether he wanted to spend time with me, whether he thought I was worthy. I have found a rhythm to life that works for me. I don’t want to compromise who I’ve become and what I’ve gained with something that I have learned the hard way won’t bring internal peace and happiness. I’ve found my bliss and have become the woman I used to hope would be magically conjured up by a man’s love and approval.
Maybe it’s not so much that I am incapable of dating, but that my standards have changed, and I still don’t quite understand how to navigate the dating world armed with them. I know now that I deserve respect, honesty, and compassion, not just fleeting attraction and hollow promises of love. That’s all thanks to taekwondo, and if I have to be unattached to be the New Me, then so be it.
I’ve since cancelled my online dating subscription. At some point I became bored with the whole process and eventually forgot I had my profile up altogether. When I first got into online dating I was delighted about how many interesting men I was able to meet that I would have never encountered in my regular daily life. Now it just felt limiting and like a chore. If and when I do “meet” someone again, I think I’d like it to be the old fashioned way. For now I’m going to continue to enjoy doing whatever I want whenever I want. I have a book to finish writing, after all.
The only person I initially told about my tentative foray back into the dating world was my brother. I expressed doubt and regret over restarting my profile and wondered if it was just misguided loneliness. He cautioned me to not get into something I didn’t really want to do, and added this statement:
“We just want you to be with someone who deserves you.”
Yeah, that’s what I want too. If I meet that guy who makes me feel as good as I felt in class Monday night or who even makes me want to skip class to spend time with him, then maybe, just maybe, I’ll consider taking a swig of the proverbial grape soda. Until then, I’ll see you in class.
“I believe in my own skills. I just always try to look forward to what they can be rather than to always look back on what they used to be.”
This was my brother’s response to a friend complimenting him on his musical talent. My brother is a musician (primarily piano and keyboards), and has been able to support himself with his talent since graduating college. He’s proud of that fact, as is the rest of his family. His passion isn’t just his hobby; it also happens to be his paycheck. If only we could all be so lucky.
My brother’s no slouch, though. He works harder than most people I know, spending countless hours composing, rehearsing, teaching, and marketing. What he also hasn’t slacked off on is good old fashioned practice–building his skills and continuously improving them. As he said to his friend, he knows he’s good, and he also knows he can be better.
Good old fashioned practice is probably one of the things I enjoy most about being a somewhat freshly minted taekwondo black belt. Sure, I’ve learned new forms and self-defense techniques and will need to master them to test for my next black belt degree, but what I’ve spent the most time on since last fall has been refinement.
You don’t get a black belt and then just stop practicing…or you’re not supposed to anyway. Being a black belt is an ever-evolving process. Since I haven’t the pressure of a test hanging over my shoulder I’ve been able to relax and take a much deeper dive into taekwondo technique than I ever had time for as a color belt. I can always make little tweaks and adjustments. My front stance can always be sturdier, and my kicks can always be more precise and powerful. I can go back and add black belt level attention to detail to color belt forms and one-step sparring. I can try a wider variety of offensive and defensive moves in a sparring match. I can use my knowledge of color belt techniques to help other students improve their own skills.
The opportunities for growth are endless. And that’s a wonderful thing. It’s not a matter of being dissatisfied with one’s current situation–quite the opposite. It’s a matter of being infinitely curious and passionate.
If you’ve earned your college degree, married your childhood sweetheart, started a new job, or gotten your black belt in taekwondo, then celebrate! Be proud of your accomplishments. Relax and enjoy the moment. Go ahead and rest on your laurels…but don’t stay there too long. Don’t stagnate in what was. Look forward to what can be.