Why do I want to obtain my black belt?
I don’t. When I started studying karate several years ago, I, like many non-martial artists, thought the black belt symbolized absolute expertise and marked the holder as a person with whom one should not trifle. Phrases like, “he’s got his black belt” or “he IS a black belt” held meaning in a standalone fashion. With my testing for Shodan rapidly approaching, I frequently field questions about whether I am nervous or excited. Upon careful reflection, I must honestly respond, “not really.” Why? I don’t want to get my black belt.
Before I incur the wrath of my Sensei, let me explain a little about my history. The greatest gift, and curse, imparted upon me by my mother and father involved their modeling an unyielding work ethic. Identify a goal; identify the steps necessary to reach the goal; complete said steps; achieve the goal. One’s ability to successfully navigate such a process can lead to fame, fortune, recognition … success.
Until it leads to misery that is. You see, I allowed my self-worth to be both a goal and the driving force behind success. Equating success with happiness then put the final nail in the coffin. I enjoyed great “success” in high school – first in my class academically, All-State in indoor and outdoor track, and All-Conference in soccer. Yet driving my academic and other success was not a love of learning or a thirst for knowledge, but, rather, an unwillingness to be second best to my brother (also first in his class), by feelings that my classmates did not believe that I had earned what I had achieved, and by desire to get into a good college.
The pattern continued into college and beyond. I practically lived in the Bowdoin Psychology Department during college. I authored research articles as an undergraduate, graduated summa cum laude and with highest honors in my major, and worked hard to gain the respect of my professors. Driving each of these goals, however, was yet another goal – getting into a demanding graduate program. Absent was the experience of a process that was rewarding in and of itself. As a doctoral student, the goal then became to be employed by a reputable University and then would have become to obtain tenure and then …. Well, you get the point.
Successfully achieving a goal brought little satisfaction as it simply gave way to the next goal. Self-worth did not improve – how can it with success being a constantly moving target that could never be achieved? The process to get to the goal had always been something that had to be powered through instead of enjoyed on its own. If I had trouble powering through, I simply was not good enough or not working hard enough. No achievement was ever enough. Some degree of misery, even with achievement, always persisted. I had achieved great success in life, but little happiness. In the process, I had forgotten to live.
And then karate came along … Things started the same way. I faithfully attended class, always thinking about how cool it would be when I get my black belt. Even at brown belt, old habits persisted. Frustration set in when I learned I would not be testing at the 2016 Annual Training with the United States Director of our Federation. Black belt testing occurs only once per year. I would simply have to wait another 12 months.
That delay was exactly what I needed. An amazing thing happened. Everything slowed down. An opportunity materialized – a chance to evaluate what I really enjoy about our dojo, and martial arts training in general. I found new outlets for my research and writing skills. Reading and writing suddenly seemed enjoyable again as I explored topics for no other reason other than they interested me. The goal was not to impress anyone with knowledge or skill, but rather the joy of the activities themselves. I realize a massive bonus any time my writings put a smile on someone’s face or inspire a reader to go learn more about a topic of interest. Hmm … I do not need a black belt to continue to do that. Our nonjudgmental dojo learning environment allows me to falter as a normal and important part of the learning process. Learning how to fail is a lesson I did not start to come to grips with until fairly recently. Of course, learning to fail often serves as a more valuable lesson than learning to succeed. Helping others discover such wisdom by playing my part in creating a positive atmosphere makes me feel good about myself …Gosh, I don’t need a black belt to appreciate our dojo, and the people in it, as a classroom. I greatly enjoy watching out for the well-being of my classmates and their engagement in our dojo family. Life has taught me what a nasty bastard self-worth can be – especially to teens. If I can encourage others when they are most discouraged, and help them see the beauty and strength in who they are absent any external measure, than years of psychological scholarship, ultimately abandoned, will not have been in vain. If my life experience provides a shortcut for others to learn that the process is just as important, if not more so, than progress, then I am pleased to have played a part in someone not having to spend years missing the bigger picture. A powerful lesson indeed – do not miss the chance to experience where you are during your journey to where you think you should be. Jeez, I don’t need my black belt to do that, either. Most importantly, karate provides guaranteed family time with my son. Getting my black belt will increase the time that he and I spend together in the dojo as I will be eligible for classes that he currently attends. Yet, not having my black belt does not prevent our family time in the classes we already have together, nor does it affect the martial arts stories that my son, my wife, and I share around the dinner table and in the car.
To share freely knowledge gained through research and hard work, to stand beside those who feel beaten and help them nurture the unique flame that lights their path, to introduce humor and laughter as appropriate in times of greatest need, and to teach by example the importance of family – whether related by blood or common purpose; these are the things that bring me most joy from my martial arts experiences. These are the qualities I offer to the OSMKKF Federation and comprise what I see as my place in our dojo.
And with this offering, I am asked to address if I am “in good health and able to properly perform the required techniques that you will be responsible for teaching your students.” The honest answers are “not where I need to be” and “most, but not all,” respectively. Both remain an important part of my martial arts journey; both provide a unique learning opportunity to my fellow students. We have students of all shapes, sizes, and talents. For me to share my weaknesses in all their glory as I walk the path to improvement only reinforces the safety of our dojo for all who seek to learn. My weight needs to come down, my balance needs improvement, the quest for knowledge and perfecting one’s technique is a lifelong journey. Yet while I celebrate my weaknesses as part of an attempt to address them, I also gladly share my strengths in an attempt to enrich further my own life and hopefully the lives of those around me.
And so here we are … full circle. Obtaining my black belt serves as a benchmark during my travels down a continuing path towards self-awareness and self-improvement through karate-do. Clearly my views of a black belt have evolved from when I first began karate. A black belt is an object, not a definition. An object will never dictate who I am or how I treat others. Those things will always be up to me. As Michael Clarke writes in his book regarding Shin Gi Ti,
As you move ever deeper into the study of real karate, you will discover the need to give more than you take, to listen more than you speak, and to strive for a sense of balance that brings with it a deep and meaningful sense of contentment. From such a place, it is possible to chart a course through life that is peaceful. From a position of strength and confidence you can choose to be humble and considerate, making the world a better place to live for you and those you come into contact with. Is this utopia (?), hardly; just an opportunity to change how you think and interact with those who populate your daily life. If you don’t fight, you never lose …
So why do I want to get my black belt? I don’t. … But isn’t that the point.
Respectfully submitted by:
Shawn Roberts, Candidate for Shodan
Maine Traditional Karate
August 14, 2017