The Books You Read Are Safe…

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I had an epiphany the other day: The Neverending Story is an entirely different movie when you are an adult.

I watched it with my kids a while back and they loved it. My son requested it daily for several days afterward. The scene with the wolf scared him slightly, but much like Sebastian, he overcame his fear. There are so many memories from that film for me, but they are framed by what they meant to me as a child. The scenes took on new meaning watching it as an adult.

Atreyu resonates with me as much as he did when I was a child, not because he was cool and carefree, but because he embodies the aspects of liberty, dignity, and responsibility that I cherish as an adult. He, even at a young age, took care of himself on the plains hunting the white buffalo. He didn’t show fear when the darkness reared its ugly head. He walked through the gates of the oracle when older warriors had failed.

The monologue from Rockbiter was lost on me as a child. Now, it nearly breaks my heart. “They look like good, strong hands, don’t they?” he said, as he thought about what his hands couldn’t keep hold of. How often have we pondered the same thing as adults? As martial artists? We foolishly believe muscles, size, or even weapons can protect us when the darkness sweeps across our lives. What Rockbiter lacked, as so many of us do, was the one thing Atreyu had in abundance: the mental fortitude and life experience to overcome even the worst of circumstances. He had developed these as a warrior on the plains.

Another item from the film that stuck out to me as an adult (aside from Sebastian’s dad cracking a raw egg into a glass and drinking it; so 1984) was what the storekeeper told Sebastian when he encountered the book. He said, “Your books are safe. While reading them, you get to become Tarzan or Robinson Crusoe… but afterward, you get to be a little boy again… This book is not for you.”

Ponder that for a second. The books you read are safe. There is no skin in the game. Do they take you somewhere or change your perception of the world? Do they make you more aware of your surroundings? Do they reveal things about you or the world around you that make you pause to remember, reflect, or regret? If the answer is no, then what you are reading is safe.

The same questions apply to your martial art. If your training gives you insights, whether physical, mental, or spiritual, you have a redeeming quality in the art. If the art tests you, takes you the brink of defeat and failure, but also empowers you to press forward, it is a useful art. But if the art in which you train claims to have some esoteric principles or secret physical powers that can beat anyone, yet it has never been proven effective in real life against unwilling opponents, then the art you train is safe.

There can be no development of inner fortitude without pressure, both from outside and within. There is no progress of ability without the diligence of training and dedication to principles. There is no growth without skin in the game. If your art does not require that of you, it is too safe.

We often remember the books and films of our childhood with a smile, but when we revisit them with adult eyes, they can reveal our naiveté about the world. We must consistently evaluate our perception against new experiences and new information. I love The Neverending Story because of its connection to my childhood. Now, I love it because it shows me that change and discovery should be a never-ending process. Perhaps it is time for you to open a different book in your life, one that is not safe, one that pushes your limits.

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