As a martial arts instructor, I have a unique perspective of my students’ lives. When I meet them, I am offered a snapshot of who they are. I don’t have a sense of what preceded them entering the Dojang, and I don’t know where we will end up. As I get to know students and their families over time, the depth of my knowledge of their pasts, and my understanding of the potential in their futures grows. I always find the unfolding of who my students are to be an interesting process and one that is often filled with surprises. Some surprises are small, some are stunning. I had one of the later while talking to a parent several years ago.
We were discussing her son’s progress, and I was curious about some quirks I was seeing in his learning and communication style (all of my students have quirks, and it is fun to learn about them because there tends to be a lot of potential hidden behind idiosyncrasies). This child, a very enthusiastic student who is hungry for anything martial arts related, had a very difficult and unexpected early childhood. His mother told me that he struggled with speech beyond two-word combinations until he was five years old, and until he was three he cried and screamed constantly. He had an extreme case of sensory processing disorder, which means that his brain was so overwhelmed by his five senses that it short circuited. In fact, the only time he was able to stop screaming was when he was in a warm, quiet bath. He was diagnosed at an early age with autism, and parents were advised early on by a speech therapist to consider institutionalizing him since he would never be able to grow or develop in a meaningful way.
Fortunately, his parents did not take this advice. Today, he is healthy boy with a great sense of humor and a passion for martial arts. He still has a ways to go, but if you talk to him, you would never guess his history.
This student’s success (and his parents’ success) is inspirational. If feels good learning that someone can overcome such adversity. But I present his story for a slightly different reason. People often hear of such a story and find it inspiring, but distant. Someone accomplishing what seems impossible can feel like something that other people do, especially when our lives seem so ordinary.
But for this child, his extreme experience was ordinary to him. He didn’t know anything else (especially because he was really young). So all the effort that he and his family put towards his health was, well, normal. Don’t get me wrong, their effort required courage in the face of terrible fear, in addition to unconditional love and tons of patience. What I mean is that they were dealt a particular hand of cards, and they went with it. The results are marvelous to behold.
So what about the normal-ness of your life? What would change if you applied such courage in the face of fear? If you put forth that much effort, what could you do that was extraordinary? Often, we wait until something extraordinary happens to us and forces us to rise to the occasion. We see this capacity for extra effort as an emergency reserve, available when the worst happens but not to be tapped in “regular” daily life. In reality, this represents raw potential from which we can draw anytime. What we are missing is the will. In an emergency, we either wilt or we rise to the occasion. Will is the determining factor between the two responses. It is through force of will that we embrace hardship and rise above, and the lack of will that allows us to resign ourselves and give up.
One of the things that I’ve valued more than anything else in my experience in martial arts is how training works the will like a muscle. Constantly being presented with situations in which failure is a very real option—and then succeeding through the application of effort—strengthens the will as push-ups strengthen the body.
With practice inside the Dojang, strengthening the will can become a habit that you can take outside of the Dojang. At this point, you can begin performing experiments in areas of your life that seem insurmountable. Maybe there is a change that you make in your diet. Perhaps you need to have a conversation with your boss that you have been avoiding. Or maybe you just want to watch less television. From the outside, all of these things may seem simple enough, but in reality they require the focused application of your will for success. It is in this that the lessons learned in the Dojang come to inform the rest of our lives.
Consider the inspiring story of my student and his family as they struggled against a terrifying diagnosis. Now imagine what happen if you applied the same will and courage to all of the smaller struggles in your life. What kind of life could you create for yourself?
A final thought on the family in the story. I’ve met and worked with several kids and adults who were on the autistic spectrum. What it means to be autistic right now includes such a bafflingly wide range of symptoms and characteristics that no two people are alike. This particular child had the benefit of courageous, persistent parents and a medical capacity to improve. Some kids have one and not the other, and I don’t mean for this article to imply that kids with autism (or other developmental differences) who do not improve are the product of unloving homes or a lack of effort from the parents.