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.

Training through the years.

The Philosophical Fighter with Gustavo Machado, circa 2009.

Joshua Clements with Gustavo Machado in 2009.

This was me as a fresh white belt at my first seminar with Gustavo Machado, my head instructor. As I near ten years on the mat in Jiu Jitsu, plus the many more in Wrestling and Judo, I can’t help but think about this year and what it will be like. I have never tired of learning something new, and it seems the more I learn, the more the small details make the biggest changes in my game. It is not about adding to, but taking away, in the long run.

I started as a writer and progressed to being an editor. They are two different processes. In the former, I have a blank page and have to fill it up much as an artist does with a blank canvas. This is much the same as being a white belt. You grab techniques and put them in your arsenal. Before long, you have so much that the bag becomes too heavy to bear and you must dispense with something to keep going.

Being an editor is more like being a sculptor. You chip away at the inessential to get to the masterpiece underneath. This is where I like to think of my game. I want to unburden myself from the flashy and fancy techniques. Get back to the basics that make all grappling styles efficient. Just something I am dwelling on lately.

Quitting: Should I walk away?

Quitting

Should I quit? A question we often ask ourselves.

Have you ever felt like quitting? Whether it’s a martial art, a marriage, or a job, we’ve all felt like giving up the fight at some point in our lives. So what do we do when we face the temptation to walk away?

Let’s look at why people quit. Some do it because of the stress involved in the activity. Others may stop because of a particular person or an undesirable task. In my martial arts experience, many quit because of family and work obligations. Of course, there are those that drop out due to the training being harder than they expected, but I don’t find that to be the norm for the average participant.

One thing we have to realize about not quitting a hobby or even a passion is that in continuing to engage in the habit, I am giving up the opportunity to do something else. In economic theory, this is called an opportunity cost: forgoing one thing in order to do another.

For some of us, that sacrifice is financial. Giving up a few hours at work to be able to train can mean less money in the paycheck. For others, it could be spending a little less time with family and friends. Giving up that drink at the bar on Friday night can be a good thing. Pawning off your children to an in-law every week to train may have drawbacks long-term.

In contrast, what are the benefits of staying the course and continuing to train or strive at your task? First, no expert ever became such by quitting. We will likely never get good at something if we discontinue doing it. And if we develop a certain proficiency, we generally don’t maintain those skills by neglecting practice.

While walking away from something I have spent nearly a decade pursuing would certainly be tough, years invested is not what keeps me coming back in spite of numerous surgeries, broken bones, dislocations, and constant aches. What kind of sadist would I be if I said I enjoyed those woes?

No, the thing that keeps me tethered to my arts at this point is much the same as what keeps me in my marriage. It’s the relationship. The people I have met and have made an impact in my life are what fasten me to the masthead of this ship, even when the sirens are calling to drag me down. This list of inspiring individuals includes my instructors, my training partners, and now my students. Without them, I am not who I am. Each one has left a mark on my life that I cannot deny. Quitting now would be a slap in the face to all of them.

When I think about staying the course, even when it seems impossible, I remember what Paul wrote to Timothy in the Bible, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” I want to be able to say that when I am ready to leave this world. Death may win the fight, but I want him to know he’s been in one. The only way to do that is to keep going, stay the course, and don’t quit.

 

Your Best Competition––You

Who needs truth when you have an incredible tale to tell? Alexander the Great, one of the most successful conquerors of all time, was purported to have wept when he surveyed the size of his kingdom and realized there were no more lands to subdue. This makes for a great analogy even if I believe it is not entirely historically accurate.

I have realized as a martial artist and competitor that when I had to wrestle younger, more athletic opponents, I was not always on top or the best. In spite of this, the real victory for me is knowing that I am overcoming my own hurdles, my own adversities. Being better today than I was yesterday is what I have to look back at as well as look forward to.

I have many medals, but one lone trophy sits on a shelf at my gym. It’s a first place (my only first place actually). It’s plastic. It is no indication of where I am heading, but merely where I have been.

Some individuals have more trophies than others, certainly more than me. A trophy can be any number of things from a piece of plastic to your dream job or a time when you were in your physical prime. We look back to those items or times and remember how we felt in those moments, perhaps what it was like to be on top. This sense of pride overwhelms us and we smile.

Not to rain on anyone’s parade, but generally, these things also indicate that we beat someone in a game or a match of some sort. Or perhaps we got a job over someone else, or through a genetic lottery, we naturally looked better than other individuals around us. They all mean that we were in some way at odds with or in competition against other people.

There have been great athletes who certainly know the feeling of besting an opponent. Muhammad Ali, the boxing legend known as “the greatest,” even wrote a rhyme about how great he was: “I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”

The question in the minds of any champion, even the greatest, is when will my reign end? What happens when the game is over? What happens when there is no one else to conquer or award to win?

Truly there is only one person that you can consistently try to overcome. That person is you. By making your fight against who you were yesterday, you will never lack for an opponent and you will also not have to worry about younger, stronger competition.

The opportunity to vie against others will come and go, but according to Confucius, “he who conquers himself is the mightiest warrior.” The person you will always have to compete against will be facing you in the mirror each morning. While there is no trophy or monetary gain from a victory over personal adversity, it certainly has a sense of satisfaction. Make it a point to be a better you every morning.