Can I Live Without Taekwondo?

lonely beach

I haven’t been to taekwondo class in over a week. Not by choice–a sinus infection thanks to Texas allergies knocked me back pretty hard. I was thankfully able to attend a lovely banquet for the U.S. Taekwondo Grandmasters Society in Dallas last Saturday, but other than that my participation in the taekwondo world has been nil.

I haven’t done any forms at home, I haven’t mentally worked through my self defense techniques, I haven’t watched any training videos. My uniforms are all washed and neatly folded in a drawer, and my belt is coiled in my duffel bag, waiting for me. I didn’t do anything related to my practice. It seems like I can live without taekwondo. Or so I thought.

I talked to some of my classmates and instructors off and on for a few days, getting the gossip and funny stories about things that happened in class. By the end of the week communication dwindled to a trickle and finally to nothing. Having been burned several times in the past by giving my heart too freely, I’m pretty gun shy about pursuing communication with people who don’t appear to be very communicative. So I didn’t bother. I was too stubborn to reach out. Maybe I should have been the one to call, text, or even stop by, but I was too afraid of being rejected. Decades of hurt and mistrust overtook me and poisoned the relationships with people I love. Apparently they can live without me too.

Boredom set in, then an aching loneliness, then depression. I have cabin fever. Other than a ballet barre class yesterday I’ve been too tired and congested to exercise. I’ve hidden in my office during most of the workweek. I’ve been reading voraciously during all my time at home, taking full advantage of having a well-stocked library in my house. I’ve written in my journal a lot. I began mixing substances just to get the night over with, not really caring what effects they’d have on me.

To my horror I’m tempted to wrap my protective cocoon around me tighter and mutter, “Fuck all of you, I’m done,” when what I need the most is my familiar dojang and friends. But there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to go back at all. I’m safe at home with my books and my mood-altering substances. I’ve whittled myself down to 110 pounds and feel especially elated every time I step on the scale. I could get used to this. I’ve sunken into isolation before, and I’m very good at staying there. Maybe the relationships I thought were solid are just as superficial as all my other ones. Hiding in plain sight is easier than it sounds. Taekwondo is just an addiction that’s been masking my other addictions.

I’ve made the cruel discovery that not even taekwondo, what I thought was my saving grace, can fulfill whatever it is my heart is looking for. I was just clinging to it, like I had to other things or people, to make myself “happy.” I have to generate that within myself.

I can live without taekwondo, and taekwondo can certainly live without me. How arrogant of me to think that I’m an essential part of the school, part of the gang, one of the boys. I’m only a first degree black belt, just a student who plays dress up as teacher once in a while.

But I don’t like how I feel without taekwondo. I still need it. I’m heartbroken without it, yet I don’t like that I feel so vulnerable to admit it. I see how rapidly I declined without it in only a week. I’m angry that it has such a hold on me that I fall apart without its constant presence in my life. Will the spell be broken once I’m back in class?

Have Growing Partners, Not Growing Pains

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This is still too much commitment for me, but I like the idea.

I had this boyfriend who claimed at the very beginning and at the very end of our relationship that one doesn’t grow in isolation. I think he said them both as a means to convince me to (1) get together with him in the beginning and (2) not to walk away at the end…even though he technically broke up with me, but that’s a different story.

I recognized his point but disagree on the absoluteness of it. I’ve done most of my growth, and I’m talking the really hard, gut-wrenching, gritty, life-changing, come-to-Jesus stuff “in isolation,” other than with the guidance and confidentiality of one trusted mentor. It was my only option, or at least that was my thinking at the time. First of all, my destructive behaviors drove people away, so that took care of any crowdsourcing for help, and second of all, I wouldn’t allow anyone to see me at my worst. I had to face some really hard truths about myself, and I had to fight that battle alone.

But…when given the opportunity, having other people guide us, give us feedback, and share their journeys with us can be one of the best ways to grow. At the end of last Saturday’s sparring class my Chief Instructor reminded us that we couldn’t just go in to class with the singular mindset of fighting for ourselves. We had to be good partners, whether that was being mindful of safety, respecting the other person’s age or body capabilities, or knowing how to challenge them in just the right ways. He’s since reminded us in other classes that being a good partner is just as important as practicing our own skills.

I subscribe to that philosophy as well. At the beginning of that particular sparring class I had reminded a teenage green belt, who seemed dismayed at the prospect of having to spar little kids, that part of his job as an older student and one who was moving into higher ranks was not just working on his own practice. He needed to be able to look out for and mentor the younger, smaller students, which is a good challenge in itself. For me being a black belt has partially been figuring out what I don’t know (or one might see it as moving from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence), and just as importantly, if not more so, living up to the responsibility of sharing what I do know with other students.

I started taekwondo training as a means to heal in a number of ways and give my life some purpose. It was self-centered motivation, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Since then, though, I’ve learned (albeit a little slowly) the importance of community and the part I need to play not only for my own fulfillment but for others, in some cases, more for them than for me. My life is much richer and happier because of my taekwondo family. I’d like to think I’ve done some good for them as well. The desire to serve and to, as my Chief Instructor would say, “be a good partner,” is inherent. I wouldn’t be where I am without them.

Having a good partner, whether it’s in the dojang, the workplace, or the home, offers us a fresh perspective. They help us see our blind spots and the potential for greatness we haven’t yet recognized. Good partners push us just beyond what we think we can do and encourage us when we want to give up. They help us through the painful times and celebrate the good times. Being a good partner lets us share our wisdom and sometimes hard-learned lessons with others. It allows us to serve others and get outside our own self interests and agendas. It allows us to see our passions through another person’s eyes.

We can grow more quickly and more fully with the help of a good partner.

I don’t always practice what I preach or what my taekwondo instructors preach in my daily life, though. In fact, I veer towards the other end of the spectrum. I hate sharing my struggles (so that last post about my sort-of eating disorder was REALLY hard to write). I hate opening up my life to other people. I hate sharing my precious down time with anybody, even people I like. I think I want human interaction and connection, I’ve finally admitted that I need it to have a more fulfilling life, but damnit, I HATE asking for it.

I even hate sharing the good parts other than the insights I write about on this blog. It’s not a matter of wanting the glory for myself. I simply don’t know how to ask. It doesn’t occur to me. I was a loner as a child and learned to rely on myself for everything. That thought pattern has followed me well into adulthood, sometimes to my advantage because I’m very independent and autonomous but other times to my detriment. It’s easy to get tunnel vision without any feedback or an objective perspective.

I still have a hard time accepting the fact that I do need other people. They enrich my life in ways that I’m not able to do in isolation, try as I might. I’ve gotten better at it at work. During my yearly performance evaluation my boss remarked that I had a knack for building and maintaining relationships. It wasn’t always natural, but as I grew into my “caregiver” roles (first as a librarian and then as a leadership development consultant) I embraced human interaction and connection as my means of doing my work. I’m good at it, and I think I’ve helped a lot of people grow. I’ve been a good training partner.

I don’t do that in my personal life. I don’t seek out relationships. I’m not loyal. I’m not consistent. I don’t stick around. The urge to do my own thing, and more importantly stay off the social grid and viciously guard my free time, almost always wins out over the desire to spend time with other people. I have long-lasting acquaintances but very few long-lasting friendships. Frankly, I’m not a very good friend or partner, and there is a big part of me that couldn’t care less.

What would my personal life be like if I looked to family, friends, and coworkers as my “life training partners” just as I do with my taekwondo instructors and fellow students? What could I learn from them? What could they learn from me? Would it bring me as much fulfillment as taekwondo training does? What would I bring to others’ lives and experiences? Would it help me be less self-centered and keep me from sinking into tunnel vision thinking or depression? Would I really have to keep shouldering my burdens or even my triumphs alone?

Am I ready to share my journey instead of stubbornly growing in isolation? I’m not sure about that one. For now taekwondo is a good start.

Keeping Your Guard Up

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Someone hasn’t learned high block yet!

“Hands up! Hands UP!!”

Pop into our dojang on any given night and you’ll probably hear my instructor, me, or another black belt yelling at students to keep their hands up, ready to block or strike at a moment’s notice. We keep our hands up most importantly to block blows to the body or head, plus, keeping our hands up is also very useful for maintaining balance during fast-moving drills. (And we’re not doing Riverdance because we like looking cool.)

Learning a martial art has taught me to always be a little bit on guard–ready to move, dodge, or simply keep a keen side eye on someone who might be at threat to my safety. I’m not paranoid; I’m just smarter about my surroundings than I used to be.

I’ve also unfortunately learned I have to be on guard with more people in my life than I thought, including people I genuinely liked and trusted. Recently something happened that, while not a big deal in the large scheme of things, still bothered me deeply and made me question whether I can ever fully trust that certain person. I felt vulnerable, exposed, and embarrassed. I don’t think this person even realized they hurt me, but their actions showed they didn’t have much foresight into how it might have affected me. I have seen them do something similar in the past, so maybe it’s my own fault for not being more guarded in the first place

A larger situation I’ve been facing has shown me who I can truly rely on and trust. It’s shown me who I can go to for comfort and who I need to be more careful around. I have to see this particular person on a semi-regular basis although I’ve gotten pretty good at keeping my distance. They mean me no harm, but this is not the first time this person has crossed the line. We both need things from each other, and I am more than happy to play nice…and my guard is up. My hands are up, I’m on the balls of my feet, and I’m ready to move quickly to protect myself.

Thankfully my taekwondo family are just about on par with my blood family–I trust them completely. Maybe beating the crap out of each other brings a certain intimacy to the relationship, but more likely it’s our deeply rooted bond over something we love to do. The desire to help, serve, and lift others up is implicit. In other non-taekwondo/non-family areas of my life I’m looking out for Number One. Although I’m interacting with, helping, and serving others, my ultimate priority is protecting my well-being, interests, goals, and plans. My guard is up, and incidents like these show me (the hard way) that I need to keep it up at all times. Sometimes you have to get hit to learn how to defend. Just like in a fight, it’s a necessary and sad truth.