Justice

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Justice means Equality.

Stoicism is on a bit of trend these days. It’s mostly just dropped in as a word though, a vague catch-all for mindfulness, stripped of all of it’s meat. People love to quote Aurelius, and talk about accepting bad things that happen to you, and moving on with your life. This is, indeed, part of Stoicism. And that’s a problem.

Stoicism isn’t a perfect philosophy, although I feel like it is the closest we have to a perfect one. But certainly, the people who founded it, and lived it’s practices most famously, where not perfect people. The followed it’s precepts in many ways, but where often unable to extend their perceptions beyond the culture they lived in, so we see in their works often baffling amounts on sexism and tolerance for things like slavery. Despite that, I do find tremendous value in the teachings of Stoicism, and I do think it has a lot to teach us about making our world today better.

At it’s heart, Stoicism is about a life-long effort to be your ideal self. One of the major tools used to accomplish this is to balance the four classical virtues of Prudence, Temperance, Courage, and Justice in your life. To make it incredibly simple, The first three are sort of vaguely covered by modern mindfulness practices and all of it’s derivations, and can be seen in the rise of the “small habits” kinds of books and things.

Justice is ignored. Probably because it is the hardest of the virtues to understand. Cicero’s masterwork on Stoicism, “On duty” is mostly about Justice. And the reality of life today is that none of us feel like Justice is a thing we can control or honestly have any understanding of. Justice is a not a thing to avail ourselves of though, but rather a responsibility to bear.

Justice is Equality. But what does that mean?

The virtue of Justice is seen in the drive for equality with others, and in seeking to make all equal. This is not necessarily equality of outcome, because chance and luck are real, but an equality of opportunity. I might not wish to have the bad outcome that others are suffering from, but I should never fear to have the same opportunities as others.

Let’s be a little blunt. If I head downtown right now, I’m going to see a lot of people living some pretty shitty lives. Ask nearly any person in my city if they want to be equal to them and you will hear a resounding hell no. Press as to why, and you will hear about fear of crime, or disgust about dirtiness, addiction…eventually you will get to the point where they will say that these people brought it on themselves, or maybe if they are open minded they might say how sad it is that mental illness or poverty resulted in this. How sad. Not my problem. Walk away.

That is not Justice. That is not equality. Our country is not the wealthiest, but our standard of living is high. We know what causes a person to fall between the cracks, and we know how to stop it. And yet we actively permit it. Actively. Where is the mental health care? Where are the interventions at a young age, the awareness of the unique circumstances that will tend to lead a person into feeling like they cannot be a part of our society? We have the knowledge but lack the will to commit…not even resources, but even just the will to fix. We lack Justice, because we abandon people to inequality without even trying.

And this is only among those we consider our peers, those from our personal community. How do we react if they are from another community? Another culture? Another country? Do we strive for equality, or do we strive to ignore, strive to not even try to find a solution?

Police are not equality, and they are not Justice. They are hardworking people that we use to band-aid over our wounds, to cover them up so we never have to consider how we wounded ourselves, never have to consider how we should properly care for ourselves. They are our excuse that we are doing something to be just, but they are a sign of our vice. Each of us, as an individual, is complicit in this vice when we don’t demand better.

We are happy to see and expect mind-bending progress in technology…but overcoming poverty or mental illness? Impossible. Just have to accept what is, is.

Bullshit.

If you want to make your life better, if you want to really be on that journey to your ideal self, then start to think about what you are just accepting in terms of inequality. Seek out and LISTEN to the voices of those affected. Listen and learn about the experiences of First Nations people, the people who shepherded this land first. Find and listen to the voices of those Canadians born here in cultures that aren’t European in origin, who’s skin colour, dress, or names make them stand out. Listen to the voices of new Canadians, and how they have to cope with a constant wealth of misunderstanding and hatred.

Get angry, because there is a constant stream of injustice happening. If you are not aware of it, you are not excused, you are practicing the vice of injustice. Strive for equality constantly, and when that seems burdensome, then you have found something you can fix for the better of all.

Be your best self. Be just.

Gravitas and the Rainbow

Moving my regular Thursday night sparring class online represented some challenges for me. My preferred style of coaching is not to present a formal lesson plan for students to receive, but rather to look and analyze my students to see how they are progressing towards the ideals of the school, and then give them what tweaks I think will work best for them. That’s not so great when you are looking at a square of students in a video frame, some of whom can move freely about, and others who can barely swing an arm without hitting something.

I adapted by doing something I always wanted to do. I decided to start an ongoing class to work through Marozzo from page one, and one page at a time, cover the whole manual with a group of students. It was a bit rough to start, but lately we’ve hit an awesome collaborative groove. It’s done something I had not expected, which is to re-kindle my love for digging deep into a source and mentally consuming it whole.

And it’s also reminding me of some old angers, and the reasons why I grew to hate the HEMA community, and stopped referring to myself as a teacher of historical swordplay. To be clear, most of those reasons where just part of my own strange personality quirks, but looking back on it now…and comparing to what I see from some modern schools…some of those concerns where valid.

It mostly has to do with how we look back at the old masters.

There is a sort of Orientalism that appears when people study historical arts. The past, and the works of the masters, are held up to be ideal. They are seen as the only legitimate source of martial knowledge on swordplay, as their world was more “real” in that is was closer to the daily practice of swordplay than ours. We are supposed to hold accuracy to their works as the highest standard of correct swordplay. And as an extension of that, we should be looking to those who are able to do the most accurate explanation and transference of their material as our modern ideals of swordplay.

Well, bluntly…fuck that.

It’s an approach that just breeds bullshit. You get this bizarre concept that what makes the works of the masters better than others is that they are somehow more “deadly” than other martial arts…because obviously “real” martial arts are about being killers, right? Life and death at every exchange! Only the strong survive! HEMA is best because sword killers! Horseshit. There is an absolute modern fantasy of looking to the history of Europe and seeing it as only existing of brutality and oppressiveness. A land of warfare that spawned knights, armies, kings, empires, chivalry and world conquest. And learning their sword arts is a way to get a touch of that magic power into your own life.

This sort of reduction of a people into something easily understandable and classifiable is a cancer. It rots the brain into a passive ignorance and acceptance, and is strongly opposed to the questioning curiosity we should approach any vital learning with. When we make this simplification of a culture, we do it to contrast with our understanding of our own culture. Because obviously we cannot be as brutal and deadly as they were in the past, right? We obviously have no true understanding of what combat entails, of what it takes to kill another person up close and personal. Not like “they” did.

This is an understandable process. Martial arts exist in a place that can be hard to define and place in our lives. Most of us start with a bit of a superhero-esque dream of gaining abilities that we can use to make our world better. But as we learn, we see that we are actually doing is becoming a part of practice that exists outside of our day-to-day lives. It runs the risk of becoming selfish. So we start to reach for a reason to justify what we do. It’s not much of a stretch to see how we move from there to leading ourselves to believe we are preserving some sort of lost warrior culture. The only other possibility seems to be accepting that what we are doing is a sport, and thus for some of us means being associated with a while other culture.

We grapple with the past so that we can feel like we are justified in our actions today. To understand how we are a progression of what has come before us, to understand what conditions led to us picking a sword up today, is a good thing. But it behooves us to have an accurate understanding of the past, which means we must have an accurate understanding of today. And we must always understand that what we are currently doing is going to shape our future.

The onus is on us to always keep our focus not on re-creating the past, but to remind ourselves that we are creating a modern martial art with roots in the past. We do not know the past. We can only extrapolate from the evidence left to us, and the process of extrapolation is not an amateur effort. It can be done by amateurs, but most always follow a solid academic model. This means things like multi-disciplinary reviews should be integral to the process. The study of the history of what we do should also be remembered to be a separate discipline from the extrapolation of that history to an actual practice. These are different fields of study and practice. As is the extension forward from all of that to how to bring in correctly into modern practice, and again into how that practice should move forward into the future.

All of these fields of study must work together in balance if we are to create a modern practice with value for the future.

We short ourselves when we try to place excessive gravitas on our practice. When we see what we do as only having value compared to other arts, or other cultures, we tend to forget our own culture. If we blind ourselves to it’s flaws, we blind ourselves to it’s virtues. When we try to fit in what we see from other arts without understand why they are done, we rob ourselves of understanding our own values.

I do not know, and never will know, who Marozzo really was. I can read his works over and over again, I can read his contemporaries and I can read his predecessors works. I can read hundreds of people’s modern opinions of his work, but I will never know what was in his mind when he sat down and wrote his book. There is an uncrossable gulf of centuries between us. And that does not matter.

Because my mission today, with my students, is to create something from us, that has value us and our connected communities. To do so, I must have an honest understanding of what that value will be. We are engaged in an “other” practice, a thing that exists outside of the normal routine of our lives. It takes time and attention from other aspects of our lives, and so it must return honest value. Self-defense and health are as much bullshit as historical preservation. Certainly these aspects exist and are valuable, but there are clearly better and more efficient means.

Our real value lies in that we engage in this activities because we are a unique community. In this small network we make, we learn to balance self-development with community growth. We learn to make ourselves better by skillful challenge against our peers, and we learn to make our peers better by supporting their own efforts. We bond by the uniqueness of our local culture, and we learn to defend that from others that seek to only grow themselves. Our community will grow to meet other like minded groups.

So our Marozzo must be shaped by who we are. We must recognize that are are allowed to shape and interpret our understandings from who we are. We have the right to make our own ideal masters. The past does not live. It is dead. We shape our future. We have the right to work together towards our best understanding of that past, and define for ourselves what it means to us. We have the responsibility to decide for ourselves what our correct approach to understanding historical works should be, to not just accept received wisdom.

We can have a Marozzo who is not a steady, stern bastion of gravitas and lethality, but rather a Marozzo of joy, supreme ability and bravado.

I’m here for the Rainbow Marozzo.

The Deep Groove and Change

My handwriting used to suck. It still does.

When I was approaching fifty, I had a new job that I really enjoyed. The company was relatively young and absolutely going places, and my boss was a real visionary. I’d built up some pretty good work habits over my lifetime, and this job gave me enough freedom to start putting some of those habits to work. I was meticulous about recording everything I did, and planning out my day.

Unlike other jobs, this one didn’t involve a computer. I was given a notebook on day one, and a pen. So I resigned myself to be once again known as the guy with the bad handwriting. I also had to hand-label sometimes thousands of parts in a day. More opportunity to have my handwriting be noticed. So I did what I always did, shortcut the upcoming issue by making light of my weakness, trying to get a way of owning it so I could have some control over the future difficult conversations.

But then it struck me. I was fifty. I was at a new job. No one knew me. I was already establishing myself as the guy with messy handwriting. I was making it a personality trait, a way for people to define me. I was making myself the guy with bad handwriting.

And if I could make myself that person, than nothing was stopping me from not being that person. I had the freedom to be a different person.

First step was to acknowledge that I had to make a dramatic change in habits. I had to break my pattern of handwriting, so I could build new patterns. I had to bring awareness and intentionality back into a subconscious skill.

I’ve always been a pencil user. I hate pens. They are clunky and messy, and even though I don’t really erase things, the permanence of ink always made me feel stifled in my creativity. I loved the organic nature of lead on paper, and how it expressed in different kinds of pencils. However, work required pens.

I started to buy fancy pens. I bought all kinds of different pen shapes and weights to see what I might like. It didn’t take long at my output level to realize a big weakness of pens…ink. In a few months I had a nice collection of empty disposable pens, and was looking at bulk ordering refills…and suddenly I was reminded of shaving. Of disposable razors. And how my frustration with the marketing-based changes and obsolescence of products meant I eventually switched to straight razor shaving. I hate being dependent on someone else’s idea of what I want.

So I overcame my “calligraphy” bias against fountain pens, and started to look into them as an alternative. I found a robust ecosystem, and came to utterly adore the process of putting ink on a page. My wife started to look into the process of making inks as an offshoot of her skills with natural dyeing. With my existing jewelry tools, I knew I was even able to make my own pens in future. Viola. Independence achieved.

Here on the other side of fifty, I have nice collection of fountain pens, inks and papers. I dedicate a little time for myself every day to write just for the pleasure of it, and my handwriting still sucks, but it gets better every day, and I immensely enjoy every opportunity to build skill.

Today I sat down with one of my few expensive pens, a rare and unusual design. It’s been an absolute favourite. Since I have so many pens, and am constantly moving between them with different ink combinations, I hadn’t written with this one in a while. I was looking forward to moving back to it after using lesser pens for a bit, as it was my reference pen for what a good pen was. It had shaped what I looked for in a pen…the aesthetics, the fine nib, the smooth flow of ink, the balanced weight of the pen and it’s feel in my hand. It was my ideal. I’d been saving up to use it.

Something felt off when I started to write. I reasoned I was just used to the cheaper, shoddier pens, and in a few lines I would be back into the groove. But as I kept writing, the smoothness I remembered did not come back. The pen was no longer a joy to write with.

Nothing had changed in the pen, but much had changed in me.

When I first started to learn about fountain pens, I had to trust in community opinion and reviews as to what was good or bad. I had to discover the consensus of standard first, before I could start to look for what was more inline with my personal tastes. In the fountain pen community, there was much received wisdom as to which pens where best for which budget, for which style of writing, for which experience level. From those standard lists, I chose my starter pens, and then used that to branch out and discover what was best for me uniquely.

But now that I have experience, my hand knows what is best for it. My most informed decisions at the start were mostly wasted. Most of the pens I bought will likely not be used again. But each wasted decision was intensely valuable.

Value comes from experience. There is no shortcut to this, and most especially not in the collected and standardized wisdom of the masses. Instead of a being a shortcut, this instead becomes a way of stifling exceptions. And that leads to standardization and homogeneity, and the inevitable rejection of the outliers. And further, to the sense that we must strive to belong, to not be an exception.

In martial arts, we look to the signs of respect from others to tell us who is a good teacher, to which is a good system. We want an answer that gives us a clear solution, so that we can proceed with confidence in learning. We want a system that is proven, that is acknowledged as such.

There is no answer, there is only process. You don’t have to look far to find a teacher to teach you a technique or a system…but you will have to look much harder to find a teacher who can teach you how to learn from your experiences.

A good experienced teacher could have worked with me as I was first using a fountain pen, and asked me how it felt, what was working for me and what what wasn’t. They could have given me exercises to learn to identify the nuances of what I was experiencing, to learn how to break down the experience of writing and how it related to the features of a given pen. They could have given me a process to evaluate myself and my tools, so that I would know going forward how to chose a new pen, and how to modify myself to any given pen.

There is no best sword, but there is a best sword for you.

Until we learn to stop looking for answers, and instead learn how to ask questions, even how to motivate ourselves to ask the right questions, we will never find that sword. We will only be constantly trying to adapt ourselves to what someone else tells us in the best sword.

My handwriting still sucks, but I’ve learned a new standard to compare myself to. I’ve worked to develop a script that appeals to me, that is coherent to me, and reflects my ideal handwriting. So now I compare to that, and sucking is no longer a condemnation of my skill, but a sign of my aspiration to constantly improve.

Martial arts should be seen as this same process. It’s a method as much for learning how to life our lives, as it is to find safety in our lives. It must be, at its core, a way for us to learn how to understand everything that happens to us, and how we take that understanding and shape our lives for the better.

The art is in learning, every day, how not just to use every sword the best way, but also how to be ready for your best sword.

Ecosystems

My neighbour hates my front yard.

He’s got the standard yard. Neatly trimmed grass, the requisite boxed hedges, the feature plant by the front window.

As you can see above, my front yard hasn’t been mown in about two years. There is mess of plants about. Our hedge is a tangled wreck. I tried to plant some interesting varieties of small hedging bushes on the street-facing side of our collapsing fence, but the neighbour likes to “help” by mowing over our property line and has twice mowed down the fledgling plants.

I can see his point of view. Our neighbourhood is a ghost that doesn’t know it’s dead yet. It’s beautiful, a tiny wooded joy. Surrounded on all sides by warehouses and businesses, it’s only a matter of time until it’s all bought up and turned into something else. So the neighbour is thinking about property value and appearance.

I’m thinking that the Fraser River is two blocks away. I think about it’s ecosystem, and what sort of transients it’s bringing into my yard. About how the rail line that runs next to it is sometimes a freeway for wildlife to move into the city. About how close to the ocean we are, and the life that mingles in the border between the river and the ocean.

Before Courtney and I moved here, we lived in a more mainstream neighbourhood, more in the center of the living space of the city…not high-rises, but block after block of “Vancouver Specials”, houses that are designed with the sole purpose of using up the maximum allowed portion of their lot. Giant ugly boxed rectangles…but with a token front and back yard because bylaws were written to require them.

The one we lived in had a half-dozen roses out front, and out back a small block of grass next to a driveway and sidewalk, with a single apple tree. I had spent a year as a landscaper, so I was keen to put some plant love into this area, as best I could.

What a fucking disaster.

The first sign was the aphids. I jumped on the roses, gave them a proper and long overdue pruning, but as they bloomed…they did not. I had never seen such a horrible infestation. The buds withered, sucked dry before they got a chance to open. We tried all the usual remedies, from ladybugs to just mass crushing the little green bastards whenever we saw them.

The real root of the problem became apparent when I started to try and restore the apple tree into giving serviceable apples again. Aphids again, but when I looked at the trunk of the tree, there was a thick black constant river of aphid farmers, ants, running up and down the tree. We’d know the house had an ant problem, but it turned out to be much bigger than expected. The whole yard was an interconnected series of nests.

Over the years we lived there, we were in a constant battle with singular waves of insect infestations. Inside, we had carpet beetles, then book and pantry beetles. Weevils. Fruit flies. Outside, we tore up some of the grass to install a proper bed for growing raspberries, blueberries, and some veg. All destroyed by beetles.

I don’t recall seeing a single bee the entire time I lived there, but the hornets were so bad that you could walk around and stomp them somedays.

I eventually realized that was the problem. No bees. No real birds, aside from the odd crow. No spiders, no animals aside from a brief mouse issue. The variety of animals and insects in the area at a given time felt like it could be counted on one hand. We tried to grow a garden, but we were in a desert of concrete and herbicides. Any time one form of life found a niche in the area it exploded from the lack of competition, until it burned itself out.

When we moved to the new place, it had a passable garden. Pretty little setup. Good soil. Lots of birds, squirrels, rats, coyotes, raccoons. I sat out front one day, and I counted eleven different kinds of bees alone. So many different wasps and hornets, and robber flies. Hummingbirds! Spiders and beetles of all kinds. Nothing dominated, and in a few moments of sitting anywhere in the garden, you could see all kinds of activity taking place.

We planted for this, for the ecosystem we saw. The front hedge is hosting a climbing rose that grows every year, and blooms with a tremendous scent that covers the block. In a few years it will be a gigantic centerpiece. The unmown lawn is home and resting place for flocks of birds and bees, and we’ve seeded it every year with more and more wildflowers. This year the rosemary and sage are rooting in, and the spanish and french lavender is making itself known. Right now, in the heat, our front yard may look a mess but to wander a few feet in any new direction is to walk into a new pocket of scent.

To sit in or around it is the deepest, most peaceful place I can imagine being in this city. It’s a nexus of life.

Over a lifetime, this is what training in martial arts teaches you. It’s not a process of learning an art, or excelling at a physical skill, but rather of learning to see yourself as an ecosystem, connected to other systems. If we care for ourselves and work to keep the balance, then nearby sources of diversity become vital sources of growth and re-birth for us. If we instead work to tear down what feels wrong or out of place within us, we become that concrete desert prone to ant infestation.

I was reading an article last week on how to keep up strength as an aging athlete, and much of the work was spent talking about healing from injury, and learning to not do too much with your training as you age, but rather to learn to change how you train.

As an aging martial artist, my body is a bit of a wreck from early decision to specialize. There is a constant desire to find the one true technique, or at least the one technique that is true for you. When you are competing, this can become an obsession, to do the one thing, the rules or structure of tactics tied to rules that lets you win. Every thing I ever focussed on winning with lives on in me now in a constant series of aches and annoyances.

And those aches teach you to limit your life. Getting older is a process of gradually optimizing yourself, of becoming more efficient at everything, of reducing excess of motion. For older martial artists, this often results in us being formidable fighters with surprising speed…and also with more than a few extra pounds. But this drive for efficiency, for effortless power or speed, is the real killer of a martial life.

We learn to reduce, and as a result, we are reduced. Optimization becomes a narrowing of function, and gradual but steady reduction of range of motion. We begin to move less. We begin to become still. And in doing this, we invite the infestations of opportunism and shorten not just the length of our lives, but the value of them. We begin our own fading into death as the ultimate efficiency of motion.

But all we need to do is start paying attention to our ecosystem. Groom variety, find the neglected corners of our body. Look into the things you despised early in your training as being useless. Or find something useless to add to your training.

As a swordfighter, there was never once a single solo practice drill that look liked the pattern training I see from other arts, or from people who train with swords but don’t fight, that was ever of any use for fighting. Nor did I ever run across anyone who trained that way who had any useable skill in a bout. But now I do wish that my training had included those actions…they would not have won me one more bout, but they would have given me valuable tools to keep my own ecosystem alive and nurturing to me now. And now I am forced to create those skills from scratch for myself.

And I love it. Because I have learned over the years, slowly and painfully, that I am more than just my skills. I have value beyond my ability to win a fight, or even to teach the skill to win to another. I have value because I am part of a larger ecosystem, and my own variety serves to nurture those around me, even if all they see is an unmown lawn.

I have the time now to grow myself into a pretty damned good little garden, and I’m looking forward to that process. If you are the kind of martial artist who hit thirty, and felt it hit back? I can recommend some excellent climbing roses. Kiftsgate is a great start, if you have the patience.

Hobbit Day

I’ve made some changes to my process lately, and it’s been measurably successful for me. Three weeks ago I was in a rough place, with the quarantine and work. It’s nice to be meaningfully employed right now, but I can’t deny there was some envy building when I looked around at the creative outputs other people were managing.

The reality of that, though, is that I have been through lots of phases of different employment and free time, and I have to admit that what mostly affects my creative output is not free time, but rather the structure of my life.

It’s not so much the usual regimented a thing at the same time every day sort of structure that works for me, but rather the structure of only allowing certain ways of thinking to affect my day. My most productive time ever, the time that gave birth to this blog, was when I was working long hours as a security guard. I developed the habit of giving myself some time to read a book or watch a movie at the start of my shift. Every 40-50 minutes, I would do my one kilometer patrol. After a few hours of that, my brain would kick into overdrive, and I’d write, patrol, write, patrol, until I was done writing or my shift was over.

I wrote the blog, almost a post a day, and at the same time over about a year wrote nine screenplays and two novels. I felt so productive I quit that job fully expecting I would be able to turn the incredible amount of free time into even more productive work.

Instead, there was less. I maintained the habit of writing for another few years, but eventually that wore off. Before long I was back to full time working, and teaching, and wishing I had free time to write again. I kept trying to build a habit by cutting out time for myself and making rules and a million other things, but no success. Instead, I ran back into my old pre-blog habit of starting many projects and never finishing them.

So there I was a few weeks ago, feeling incredibly burned out and and stressed. I had just worked a full week of dealing with other people’s crushing economic realities and dying dreams, and only had one day off before the next week of the same started. My previous habit was to try and recuperate as much as possible on two days off by being a slug on day one, and then getting up and moving on day two. Which always left me feeling drained but able to get through the week. Such was working life, yes?

But now I had only one day off, and was already on the verge of breaking down. I’d developed the coping habit of giving myself some time to grab a fountain pen and write in a journal by natural light. I’d noticed that it calmed me down tremendously to work through each letter, watching the ink flow out and dry on the page.

It struck me that I wanted to spend the day buried in that feeling. So I decided I was going to do something extreme. I was going to take a Hobbit day.

What this meant to me was that I was going to be a hobbit from breakfast til bedtime. No technology interaction. Writing pen on paper, playing guitar for a while, wearing only the comfiest clothes. Drinking good coffee all morning, baking treats when I got bored, sitting out in the garden or in a chair by a window and reading a book. Those were my plans for the day. Treat myself like a hobbit having the best day ever.

It was amazing. Changed my whole week. And it’s been changing me ever since. In retrospect, it wasn’t the lack of technology that made the big difference, but that lack of social media and the lack of passive entertainment. Without a constant window of what other people were doing, I was free to do just what I wanted. Without a game or show to be teasing me into watching just a few more minutes of story, I was free to stare out the window and watch the spiders, bees and hummingbirds getting on with their daily lives.

A week after that, I started to write again. I stepped away from social media much more thoroughly…allowing myself only five minutes in the morning for a quick glance at the feeds, then down for the day. I’ve started my exercise program again, and my blood pressure is trending down enough that I’m looking at reducing my meds. It strikes me that my original productivity, so long ago, was not from the habits but rather from the exclusions.

This is how our brains work, after all. The do not seek more data, but instead seek to limit and filter the storm of data that comes in. And we all have our methods to do so. It’s worth finding out for ourselves what creates silence in our minds and hearts, and allows our thoughts to roam free and organize themselves into new patterns for us to make live through our actions.

Expectations and Categorizations

If I had to chose one thing I really love about martial arts, it’s that I get to punish people for thinking that they know me.

The human brain arose from a some relatively simple biochemical processes, some basic rules that come from the physics of our universe. These simple little building blocks lead to some very complex interactions. One of these interactions is symbolic learning, where we learn to associate things with symbols. Stick equals that long brown thing. I can know say or hear “stick” and know it means and is understood to mean that long brown thing. Easy.

That same process lead us to understand things that don’t exist, like the future. And to connect and imagine possibilities for that future. And even useful, except when we can suddenly imagine improbable futures of threat or crisis. The potential for depression is baked into the system, but it’s hard to imagine it was anything other than an unfortunate byproduct.

We are far from perfect creatures because of these building blocks that solve one issue, but create others.

But also integral to the process is that we are aware (if not conscious) of these flaws, and come up with solutions to them. One of the solutions to reduce some processing overhead is that we use symbolic learning to speed up and organize things in our minds. This is where we say “that is a man, and that is a hippy” when we see two different people, because it is easier to sort those people into blocks and then stop trying to actually understand them.

This is how the brain works. It does not so much look for new data, as look for ways to filter out the flood of data that comes in. We are built to strive to make ourselves deaf and blind as best we can.

A problem arises from this in that we are now able to imagine from these symbolic connections many potential futures. Normally this is good and functional, but we are now able to imagine futures that are not good or functional…whether they are likely or not. This can lead to depression, indecision, stress, or a myriad of other issues. The process itself creates these potentials, and the prevalence of one type of future or another to be imagined is a product of our perceptions in no small part, but that’s another post.

Much like depression is an unwanted side-effect of this brain structure that we seek to work around, racism and tribalism and other bigotries can arise from what should be a beneficial process. These things are somewhat like cancer, in that they are otherwise normal and healthy behaviours in isolation. When they break out and reach beyond their original territory, things fall apart.

To be human is to recognize these essential flaws in our system, and strive to overcome them. This is the “Obligation” or “Duty” that Cicero speaks of in his definitive work on Stoicism, “De Officiis.” Every philosophy or religion, to some degree or other, also addresses this.

When the system works, humans pull together into communities that balance individual growth with community needs, and extend that same pull together, or prosociality, to other groups. When it fails, individuals who move to the extremes (fascists, racists, stalinists, etc) become selfish and reduce the capacity of the group to support others, and groups can similarly become extreme to the detriment of other groups. It is in our nature to do this, but it is not normal, efficient or healthy for our nature. It is a cancer, that out of place and uncontrolled, will kill the organism.

It starts small within all of us. When we walk into a room and immediately, before we can even think about it, categorize each person in the room. When we see a friend, but do not recognize the changes in them. When we are sparring, and see the obvious opening and strike, only to be parried and struck back.

Our nature is not defined by who or what we are, or how we act in a moment, but rather by the accumulation of all that we are over the span of our lives.

This is not just a personal journey, though. The core of all of this is how we connect one to another, and how our varied communities connect to each other. In a time of pandemic like this, we can clearly see the orientations of groups. The norm is to pull together in solidarity and mutual assistance, but there are pockets of selfishness, of self-selection, to be seen easily. You can watch the history of one nation fragment into pockets in an almost daily progression, led by the actions of one man, to one group, and out to the whole country. Like a prion that shapes by contact, the infection had spread years before this and is only apparent now in the madness that finally starts to show.

But again, it has been with us all, in us all, from the beginning. We build societies and cultures, and ensure that they live on past our own lives, in order to defeat this and keep it at bay.

Perhaps now it is time for us to recognize that the seeds of corruption have grown out of hand, and we are at risk of losing our future without action. Knowing that we are prone to cancer, we can no longer pursue a life of not caring, but must instead spend a little time each day paying attention to what we eat, how we exercise, what we surround ourselves with, and be vigilant about seeking aid when things seem off.

Look to your friends and your communities, and see how they support each other, or how they drain. Does one voice or group dominate, or do all work to make each strong and known? Now is the time to be decisive about interactions, about whether to leave or excise the extremes. The time to sit back and see what develops is gone.

If you have the energy, it’s also time to form new communities. Communities that can promote and protect prosocial behaviour. Communities than can grow into societies and cultures, and be a strong and active opposite to the cancerous groups.

The world is full of Beowulf’s. Perhaps now is the time for the Grendel’s to rise up again and have their turn. Be an outsider, so that you always have a broader perspective of things and can be compassionate. Learn to see everyone as an individual, and see their uniqueness. Build a habit out of it until it is integral to who you are. And in doing that, look for others who do the same, and join together.

Vivat Grendel.