the Red Stripe

So back in April, this happened:

I'm in the middle, flanked by two much better martial artists.
I’m in the middle, flanked by two much better martial artists.

After three years as a “candidate” I received the rank of 4th Dan Master in the WTSDA. The previous years of work that earned me a ticket to this test aside, I spent those three years seriously refining my craft, testing three times, working with other seniors, making contributions on a regional and worldwide level, sharing my knowledge with my peers, submitting a 20,000+ word thesis on the use of the staff, and also having some serious identity crises and genuine moments of wanting to walk away from it all.

This guy had it tougher.

And as of this date, I am a certified Master of Tang Soo Do. To get there wasn’t as grueling as the 36th Chambers of Shaolin, but it wasn’t a walk through the daisies, either. I’ve been practicing this art for 18 years. That pales in comparisons to others in my group, but it is a significant chunk of time. I’ve spent most of my adult life with this group, and it is the one thing that I’ve done longer than anything else. Short of respiration and circulation, that is.

Since this is my special moment, I feel compelled to share some of what I learned along this crazy ride. Some of these may come as a complete surprise to my junior peers. Meanwhile, many senior to me will nod their head in acknowledgment.

I’m not that good.

Cool belt, huh? For 8 bucks plus the cost of embroidery you can have one, too!
Cool belt, huh? For 8 bucks plus the cost of embroidery you can have one, too!

Seriously. I’m not.

I consider myself to be a serious student of the martial arts. I would go so far as to say that I’ve put an above average amount of time into training and study of Tang Soo Do and related subjects. What can I say, I’m a reader. Other people just worked out more and can kick me up and down the floor.

In a small pond, I look pretty good. I’m the senior person in our Association in this area. To those students, I stand out as someone who “knows” what they are doing. Beyond that, I consider myself to be far behind my peers on a Regional level. Some of them were testing for Master when I started training. Some of them have been a black belt since I was born. I’m surrounded by extraordinarily talented people who are passionate about this art. Being in their presence motivates me to continue improving.

My mantra the last three years has been suck less. I like this mantra because it is, to be blunt, everyone’s goal. We’re all one big jump away from our next level of understanding.  It’s just a matter of making that jump at the right time and not hitting the wall.

It was really hard / It was really easy.

Yeah, it took some hard work and sacrifice. I turned down some opportunities to follow this path. I spent a lot of time and money on the way here. I also had the support of my family, a flexible job, access to some of the best instruction, resources galore, and the comfort to be able to afford to throw money at training.

I have friends in my cohort who cannot afford to spend the time and money needed to make the next level. Their national economy is in shambles. They recently lost their job. Some of them are fighting potentially terminal diseases. I won’t let myself believe that my ability to write a few more checks somehow makes me a better martial artist.

For some people, saving up the money to fly around the world is a lesson in perseverance and determination that I would have – quite frankly — wilted under.

Comparatively, I have nothing to complain about.

Tang Soo Do is a big tent.

I used to consider myself a “traditional” martial artist and would scoff at people whose style or interest didn’t match my own. Clearly, my way was better, right? From there, it became easy to ascribe other traits to people who disagreed with me. Do you train for tournaments? Boo. You haven’t read this one key book? Impatient sigh.

The problem with this line of thinking is that someone is always “more traditional” than you. Eventually, a standards arms race occurs. Who trained harder. Whose instructor can trace their lineage back to a long dead master. I’ve watched grown men and women discuss uniform sleeve length and ascribe adjectives such as “disrespectful” to people who dare to wear a 3/4 cut sleeve. Bare forearms say so much about a practitioner, wouldn’t you agree?

From my perspective, the number of people who practice a martial art is so small in comparison to the planet’s population that getting into silly arguments about who is practicing the “true” way is ludicrous. The people who invented these styles are long, long dead and lived in a completely different time and practiced in a completely different context. Were they to be brought back to see the present, I think their first question would be “wait, you guys have access to low cost, high quality shoes and you’re still practicing barefoot?

Labels can be useful. Once we start using them to elevate our way over that of someone else, they lose their purpose. Celebrate the 90% that you have in common with other martial artists, drink away the other 10%. 🙂

I didn’t do this myself.

The help I had along the way seems almost unfair in retrospect. I stumbled into a small club with an excellent instructor who was extremely generous with his knowledge. He introduced me to a group of dedicated people who allowed me opportunities far beyond what my rank should have allowed me. Through their own time, sacrifice, and sharing, I was able to develop my own skill set. In fact, to not get to this point would have been a ridiculous waste of all these resources.

My wife has endured her share of pain in this process as well. We’ve made small sacrifices and driven each other crazy along the way as we try to balance building our life together outside of the dojang. One day, I hope I can make similar sacrifices for her to continue on her own path.

I won’t pretend my contribution to the process was minimal. But, I’m also aware of the people who pulled me up, opened doors, believed in me, and kept me on the path to this point.

There’s a long way to go.

Remember that 20,000 word essay on staff? Going into the project, I had a brief fantasy that my essay could be groundbreaking. The more I learned, the more I understood that I was only scratching the surface of what the staff had to teach. I learned about myself and my peers while researching the topic.

In Grandmaster Shin’s sixth book, 4th Dan is equated to 40% understanding. That is still an F in school. Think of climbing a mountain up through the clouds. You continue to climb upwards, get lost, take a nap, but there is a top within sight urging you to get closer. Once you get there, the trees and clouds clear and you see that there is another hill to climb. At that point, you can choose to plant your flag and build a house. You can also go back down and search for other mountains to climb. Or maybe, you decide that you could climb a bit further…

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
– Robert Frost “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

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