Win, lose … or live

Aldo Nadi looks back with disdain. He says competitive fencing should be about scoring regardless of form, and jeers those who insisted that every fencer had to demonstrate excellence of form before being allowed to compete. Yet he allows that the process of exacting form produced stronger fighters than the modern crop, who lack correct body mechanics to exploit their natural given advantages.

Aldo Nadi fought a duel, an experience completely foreign to almost all modern fencers. Martial arts schools are full of tough-as-nails baddasses who never, and never will, ever fight outside the training hall. Modern fencers adore their longsword and zweihanders because of there apparent war nature, but they will likely never fight in a tournament outside their school, and will only ever daydream about using the blades for real.

I’ve seen my share of death up close and personal. Amongst my friends, teachers, and acquaintances are people who have to had to kill in the service of their country…they’ve ended their service, but carry the scars the rest of their lives. I’ve had more than a few friends who’ve survived horrific things no one should ever experience. Some of those friends are broken, and do their best to live the life they can. Others have found a way to heal the break into a deep scar, and can move on.

I struggle with the morality of my teaching. I can teach for life, for the tournaments and the fun, the lessons of winning and losing, the value of hard and boring work. I can teach for death, the quick end of a human life, a group of far-to-simple mechanics, and the mindset to go with it. The older I get the more I abhor the early skills I learned, and understand the moral checks and balances that were part of the system. I don’t want to teach the deadly skills…and yet I am teaching the art of swordplay. It feels like a cheap trick sometimes. I know that the safety gear will allow my students to use what I teach safely, so I sometimes teach things others don’t. Things that never belong in any field of sport. Not techniques, but a mindset that is embodied, buried, in the simple tactics and corrects, and quiet suggestions.

Martial arts, regardless of style, should always be about life and death. It should never be a thing that everyone or anyone can learn. It should come with a weight of responsibility. That weight should mostly lie on the teacher, who’s first thought should always be towards the life of his or her student. Will my student survive their walk home tonight, if the worst should happen? Have I taught them enough? A martial artist should extend that concern to all those around them. Training in the skills of life and death makes you responsible for the violence that happens around you. You have to learn enough to be an asset to the community you are a part of.

And yet…Reality is what it is. Most of my students will never, ever need to use the true skills I’m teaching them. And to be a real teacher, you have to teach your students how to live a full life as well as how to take a life. So I need to teach my students how to use the deadly skills in not just a safe way, but a fun way. I need to show them how to get pleasure out of their talents, how to find the joy in the wins and losses of competition. I need to show them how to make their few hours with me a valuable part of their lives. No one should ever pay money to waste hours of their life. They should always walk away much richer for the time and money spent.

And I need to do my part to ensure they have a life to enjoy that richness with. It’s a balancing act. Like Aldo Nadi, I like to focus on the result, and I also see the value of the process. Class should be fun, and the majority of the drills taught should be fun in and of themselves. There should be ample opportunity to fail, so they can experience the pleasure of really getting better. And every once in a while, they should learn a little about how to get home safely. And every night, I will worry that I didn’t teach enough…

4 Comments

  1. To paraphrase my late sword teacher: –
    There is no Art in killing. There is no Art in dying ….. Getting away …. THAT is where the Art is.
    To my eyes, in that one sentence, you have the reality, the process, the fun and the meaning all wrapped up in one.

    • One of my first swordplay teachers was F. Braun McAsh. He described that, and taught it, as the Tenth Parry. It was a good and eye opening lesson. Still the best “Botta Segrete” there is.

    • Beautifully said Maija. Wise words indeed.

  2. So rare to read such words. Maybe there are more martial artists out there thinking about these things but I haven’t encountered many. I don’t know why I grew up with a similar mindset and I have been fortunate to meet teachers who shared it. I haven’t found a way to reconcile the two sets of reality you mention so essentially don’t teach or share what I know beyond a very limited circle. Sometimes I think this is bad but the thankful thing is that most people don’t, and won’t, ever need the skills we possess and there is no way to force them to learn them no matter how important I think they might be. Always a dilemma and I am glad to see you appear to be doing a better job at resolving it then I am!

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