Why are you committed to a martial art? Have you made the decision by yourself? How has your identity as a martial artist been influenced by the expectations of others?

A teacher’s expectations are very powerful. When you want your teacher’s respect, you strive to meet them. You want to be the ideal student, the student who wants to master the art. The ideal student wants to spend his free time practicing, reading, and thinking about the art. The ideal student doesn’t just do these things; he wants to spend his time this way. If he doesn’t want to do these things, then he will need a huge amount of willpower to become a great martial artist.

In other words, the ideal student must hold a particular set of values. The ideal student’s values may be even more important than his actions, because values tend to determine actions.

Those of us who desire our teachers’ respect often find ourselves emulating the values of an ideal student. This is a subtle effect which can transform your life.

 

The Case of Charlie

Suppose there’s a student named Charlie. Charlie is a young, excitable new student of Taijiquan. Charlie’s Taiji teacher asks him whether he wants to be a master. Charlie says “Of course.” Who wouldn’t? The teacher says, in order to be a master, Charlie must train for many years, learn Chinese, study traditional Chinese medicine, and so on. Charlie nods and, without any real self-reflection, mentally commits himself to those things. He wants to be the type of person who would do these things. At this point, it’s just a nominal commitment, like agreeing to the terms and conditions for some new piece of software. As Charlie continues to train, that thought sits at the back of his mind as an unquestioned assumption: This is not only what Charlie is supposed to do; it’s what Charlie is supposed to want.

Over time, Charlie internalizes these values so much that he forgets where they came from. Charlie is young, and his identity is still in flux. Charlie’s identity forms around his teacher’s values, like words written in wet concrete.

By simply following his teacher’s expectations, Charlie has committed himself to Taiji. And he doesn’t realize this for a very long time.

 

Competing Values

As Charlie grows older, his values come into conflict with other sets of values. Charlie decides to pursue a career in business. The business world tells him that, in order to compete, Charlie needs to be spending his free time in ways that improve his career, like networking and learning new skills at home. He needs to really want to go the extra mile in order to distinguish himself. This is how Charlie should be spending his time, not practicing Taiji. The business world doesn’t care whether Charlie wants to be a Taiji master.

I have no idea what this chart means, but it has something to do with values.

And Charlie needs to manage his money. He needs to be spending less than he earns and wisely investing the difference. Charlie also needs to stay physically fit; he can’t spend all of his free time sitting around. Charlie needs to eat right: he needs more calcium, more iron, more fiber, more vitamins A, C, D, E, K, B1 through B12, but less food. He needs to get exactly 8 hours of sleep at night, have a good breakfast in the morning, and have paid off his mortgage by the time he’s 50.

Oh, Charlie.

Charlie is expected to have all of these values, but they must compete for his limited supply of willpower. When his values compete with one another, he has to re-evaluate his priorities. He has to ask: Are these really my values, or are these just the values that someone else wanted me to have? Do I want to be a Taiji master, or was that just something that I convinced myself to want in order to win my teacher’s respect?

Now his personal values start to make themselves known. As with anything, contrast leads to clarity.

 

Sacrifices

Charlie will have to realize that he can’t have everything. These demands are only placed on him because he wants so much. He wants to be a Taiji master, a CEO, a successful investor, a great husband, the model of fitness, and so on. But he can’t have it all. It’s easy to say that you shouldn’t give up on your dreams, but what do you do when two of your dreams are mutually exclusive?

These are the sacrifices you always hear about.

Charlie has to takes some time to reflect on what he really cares about. This is the sort of self-reflection that he should have done when he first adopted his teacher’s values. Better late than never, I suppose.

 

A Crisis of Values

It’s tough to determine which values that we adopt for personal reasons and which values we adopt in order to please an authority figure. Even our methods of thinking about this problem, of using reason, emotion, or anything else to justify our values, even this method could have been instilled by someone else.

It’s a turbulent process, reexamining your values. Values are the central component of identity. If your values are not your own, then can you really claim ownership of your own identity?

So Charlie begins to question his identity. Disillusioned and without a foundation, he casts off all of his values. He rejects them all in the hopes of discovering who he is when he isn’t conforming to someone else’s expectations. When he does so, he finds out which ideas still seem to appeal to him. This is the same process of rejection that the rebellious teenager goes through, and it ends the same way: with a new or reaffirmed sense of identity.

 

Role Models

The values that we adopt depend on our role models. Charlie committed to Taiji because his Taiji teacher was a role model. Authority figures are the most obvious role models, especially when they advocate for their own values. But in truth, everyone is a role model for the people around them. Everyone contributes to the communal idea of what “normal” is.

For example, if you ride a unicycle to work, you will contribute to the normality of riding a unicycle to work, as does every other person who does so. As more people follow suit, that action changes from an eccentricity to a characteristic of a subgroup, then eventually becomes mainstream.

This principle is the reason why communities are so effective at instilling values in their members. If you spend your time among a community of marathon runners, for example, you will find yourself valuing endurance, cardiovascular fitness, and so on. Within the community of runners, these values are normal. If you resist these values, then you may end up distancing yourself from the community.

We’re social creatures, which means that we may never be able to claim total ownership of our own identities. That also means that everyone in our lives places some sort of implicit demand on us.

How can Charlie take ownership of his commitment? Has Charlie really made a conscious decision to commit to his art, or was that decision made by his teachers and peers? Does the commitment require as much from Charlie if he lives among a community of Taiji practitioners?

 

Priorities

Fundamentally, this is an existentialist discussion. It’s based on the idea that every decision should be a conscious decision so that we can take ownership of our own lives. This discussion isn’t limited to martial arts; consciousness is important in all areas of life. But too many martial artists choose their arts arbitrarily or commit to them lightly.

Ask yourself: Have you committed to an art for your own reasons? Why have you chosen that art in particular? Have you always felt this way? How would you feel if you were isolated from your teacher and your community?

If your decisions are not your own, then maybe it’s time to reevaluate your priorities, and to assert your own identity as a martial artist.

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