the climb will not be easy, but the fruit is sweet
you know how kids make a huge, important, distinction between tiny increments of age? remember how someone who just turned eight is clearly not as high on the hierarchy as someone who is EIGHT AND THREE QUARTERS? and then when you get to 25, it seems silly. if you met someone now who told you they were “Twenty-five and one quarter” you’d probably have to think for a few seconds to even understand what they meant, and once you did you’d laugh.
you see the same thing with geup holders—with colored belts—but in terms of who is closer to black belt, or how far along the road between 10th geup (white) and 1st dan (black) a person is. i include myself in this group. not only because i have a colored belt but because i, too, find myself not wanting to fall behind my peers in rank. or secretly delighting when a classmate ahead of me skips a testing interval so i can catch up with them. (not so secretly anymore, i guess!) some of that is that those at your geup level are the closest peers you’ll generally have. you are all learning the same techniques, as required for that belt level. so you ask and remind each other and help each other practice them. on testing day, alike belt colors will be clustered together before testing, as we are all brushing up and practicing on the techniques we will be tested on. and of course, some of not wanting to fall behind your particular group is simply ego stuff, and as ego stuff generally is, pretty funny when you relax, step back, and look at it.
i make the comparison with kids and their ages because when you and your peers reach first dan—black belt—it will hardly matter who got there a month or even eight months sooner or later. then you will all be black belt and working at a slower, tho no less intense, pace toward 2nd dan. and then, toward third. at those levels, you can’t even test but every few years. so it will level out, if you and others were only months apart at the geup levels.
and even so, when you see a first dan and a third dan black belt in the dojang, while you definitely can recognize their different levels of ability and accomplishment…they are both still black belts, they both can instruct, they both have gained that massive accomplishment of blackbelt. it is one that requires an enduring commitment and years of hard work.
when you and your peers are there, at 1st, 2nd, or 3rd dan (or beyond), remembering who had brown belt when someone else had a red belt won’t matter at all. all that will matter is how much time and love you have put into your art, and how much time and love you continue to put into your martial art.
it’s good to remember this when the tiny distinctions seem big. do we ever stop being children? i don’t think so!
it is rather amazing, the rate at which people drop out of training. i’m not talking about the ebb and flow that happens when sometimes you can’t make it in for a few days, a week, or even more. it seems life requires that of most of us, unless you are in the lucky position to be able to spend indiscriminately, avoid injury, as well as control your life’s schedule with an unusual amount of consistency. (on second thought, such rigidity and lack of spontaneity overwhelming the natural flux of life doesn’t seem like it would be so lucky after all.)
no, i mean how many people begin training, and just stop coming after a week or two. i’ve even seen people come only one day—sign up, pay, get a dobok and white belt and work out for that day—and then never show up again. i’ve seen them stick around for months, but after testing for yellow, just fade away. it’s said that if 30 people begin training, 1 will make it to even first dan (black belt). and that about 10 people will be gone from that 30 within only a couple months. this seems to be what i’ve seen with my own eyes, too. people stop showing up all the time. it just hits you one day that you haven’t seen person x for a long time. “where did they go?” you wonder. but you know. you know because you get that same voice in your head, sitting around the house. damn, that voice says. i don’t really feel like going today. i feel lazy. i don’t want my chest to burn in pain. i don’t want to push myself hard…is it really so bad if i just sit around, drink a beer and laugh at a movie instead? and you know what? it’s not a bad thing at all. once in a while i will choose to spend a little free time that way instead of sweating and kicking. but rarely, to tell you the truth. rarely do i skip a class to do something like that. though making that choice has nothing to do with “bad” or “good,” or morality at all. it’s just a question of end results. goals. where do i want to be? who do i want to be? how do i want to feel?
in my own experience, as well as have heard from others with more experience, green belt is the sticking point. a lot of people are weeded out of the training process right around green belt. not sure why that is. aside from that same thing that i’ve watched shave away a number of would-be guitarists from the path to competency: after a little pain (or boredom! or both), you begin to get a feel for just how much work will be required from you to master this thing. it’s almost always much more than you imagined! you are not gonna pick up a guitar and two weeks later, be composing beautiful solos or playing four minute songs made of all barre chords. real work is required. long term effort and discipline. and, well…that’s a good thing. it’s like what is said about competition: it brings out your best. so do disciplines that require hard work. you’ll bring your best, or you’ll fade away.
i’m not interested in meeting the minimum standards. not in anything i do, in truth. also, practically, i don’t think you can be an effective or admirable martial artist by only training for an hour or two a week, and only in class. which is why i am glad to have a stand up heavy bag at home and why i practice kicks as well as poomsae every day i am physically able, which is most days.
i like the comparison to guitar. i probably default to that comparison simply because it is a discipline that i’ve been at for over a decade. (actually, i’ve been playing since my late teens, which makes it over 2 decades. but i wouldn’t try to tell you i’ve worked hard at it for two decades. most of the hard work was up front. it does get easier, after all).
i like the comparison for other reasons, too. when you begin playing guitar, you are not even physically capable of doing the things you will one day be able to do if you stick with it. fretting chords is hard. it takes strength in your hand. stretching to hold certain chords and to play certain runs of notes requires a more limber hand than you will possess at the start. your left hand has to be trained to be very dextrous, agile, and strong. most people are right handed, so this takes time. in the beginning, you can barely hold a barre chord without the notes buzzing. and if you can hold it tight for even one strum, you certainly can’t play a progression of barre chords for three minutes. your hand will ache before long and cramp up, and you’ll have to stop. so this training you do in playing guitar will involve building up callus on fingertips—a spot where you have a large amount of nerves to aid your sense of touch; working out your hand so that muscle builds in it and it is stronger; and stretching it out over time.
eventually, your hand is rebuilt, remade. fashioned for this new tool you have introduced into the mix. as i wrote about the other day, (in most cases) our bodies can adapt to these new situations you make a part of your everyday life. and that’s a beautiful thing to experience.
but you only get there if you push past that part where your fingertips hurt so bad it feels like they are raw and screaming. before that callus begins to respond, before your body sends out the signal that “this is a real change in our environment, and not a momentary injury, so let’s reshape to account for it” you have to work them raw—until holding down that string under your fingertip feels like a little pebble of agony. this wall of challenge—not just the fingertips but the whole area of resistance where you meet your comfort boundaries—is what will separate those who only had a passing fancy to play guitar and those who are devoted to the actuality of it happening for them one day.
and so it is with many disciplines, like martial arts. one day you look back and remember when you couldn’t kick higher than your chest, or when your kicks had no real snap. or when you couldn’t throw five reverse spin kicks without getting so dizzy you were falling over, or when you couldn’t even throw one because the movement just seemed too weird to your brain and body; you just did not possess the balance or strength or coordination to do so no matter how bad you wanted to.
in fact, you don’t have to look back. no matter how far you progress at the dojang, there will always be white belts and yellow belts and green belts, and in helping them learn these kicks, you will see yourself. where you once were. brings it all back to watch them struggle with all the very same things you once did.
days pass, months pass, months add up to years, and through it all you don’t give up. even after bad days. even after days filled with pain and disappointment. that’s the only way forward.
and when you think about all that, all the effort required, i guess it’s not hard to believe that most people who begin this journey drop out along the way. but at the same time, because you do stick with it, it’s always a tiny bit surprising to me…or disappointing, when you realize that a face you had seen around for a little while has ceased to appear anymore.
i was discussing this drop off with a martial arts friend, shortly after making blue belt.
what i was actually talking about was how, as someone climbing the ranks, you seem to become more visible to the dojang as you move upward from green. realizing this was the oddest sensation. it isn’t as if the higher ranks outright refuse to acknowledge you before then…but you feel a bit invisible. your exercises overlap less, you bow out of group taegeuk earlier because you reach your limit quickly, being a low belt; you stand on separate sides of the dojang even when in a group exercise. but beyond all that, there’s a coolness…you are simply not at the same table.
as you rise above green, the higher belts seem to become a bit friendlier, a bit warmer, notice you more, say hi to you more. when relating this to my amigo a few months ago when i had the realization, he said basically “yeah, the rest of the dojang is waiting for you to drop out until that point.” which made sense, when you consider what i just wrote about how many white and yellow belts stop coming around even before reaching green.
this also ties into the last paragraphs i wrote the other day, about making brown belt being received as a bigger deal than i can remember other rank advancements; and by both lower and higher ranks alike. i think for the black belts, it probably becomes okay to start to think of you as perhaps permanent (as permanent as life allows with all her flux) members of the dojang family. and for the lower belts, it gives them a jolt of inspiration to see you reach the higher ranks. they see the path you walk, and know it is one they can follow, too. they already know the climb is not easy. but here is a reminder—in your beaming face and the pride with which you wear that belt—that the fruit is sweet.