I read an article about a week or so ago that really bugged me. It was one of those feel good, overcome your failures sort of articles. It talked about how defining a failure can be, and in this case how it pushed this one person on to succeed better than they ever have before. And that really pissed me off.
I read these sort of articles often…it’s a common inspiration tactic. What really set me off on this one was that the flaw that is common in all these articles. It was really clear in this one.
The failure that defined this person was singular. He recounted how he’d been successful at everything else in his life, but this one thing. He credited his one failure with teaching him to overcome difficulties, to be a better person, etc. Most importantly he credits the failure with him continuing to succeed at everything past that failure. I call bullshit on that.
A lifetime of success taught this person that success was his due, and that failure was a weird new thing that didn’t belong in his world. He found a way to new way to continue to be successful, but his lesson was not born of failure, it was born and bred in a lifetime of success. The important lesson was not that this person overcame failure, but that always winning teaches you to always win no matter what.
Sexual assault survivors are frequently (two thirds of survivors in one report of 400+ survivors) survivors of multiple assaults, especially so if they were victims of childhood sexual abuse.
A lifetime of failure teaches you to expect failure. Success feels like a fraud, like a thing stolen from someone more deserving. That’s a lesson that life is most willing to teach you repeatedly.
Hearing some privileged or lucky ignoramus talk about how failure is a good thing you can overcome, and using their own story of affluence to back it up, can be a slap in the face. If you have failed so much, why aren’t you able to learn the lesson of success even more? What’s wrong with you? How stupid are you?
You learn a meaner lesson when you grow up on the wrong side of success.
I have a watched a lot of people in my life never overcome those lessons. They are never able to escape their “place” in life, even when some measure of success comes their way. The scars and the crippling weight shape them against their will, and almost always against their knowledge. Hard shells make for brittle people, and true resilience is only for those who expect a happy ending. Toughness comes only from time and awareness of the losses in the scale of your own life, and a rugged sense that it’s not likely you have to face worse loss…so you can probably survive the same horrors over and over again if need be.
That is no life. Or at least not a life any of us should have to put up with. There is no potential, no growth, in living that way.
As a martial arts instructor, I see this devil on the back of many, if not most students. And bluntly, there are a lot of martial arts instructors out there who depend on the existence of that devil to keep themselves in the success book.
My only reason for teaching is to remove that devil. In myself and in my students.
I believe that is the true reason we have martial arts, and the enduring meme of the weak overcoming the strong. It’s the last article of faith many of us have left…the belief that we can overcome the oppression of the seemingly-natural rights of others to have more life and potential than we will ever have. If we can find a definitive way to protect our physical self…so often the first thing violated in a life of loss…then perhaps we can start to rebuild our vision of the world into one where we stand on a more even keel with others.
It’s the hidden warrior within that finally snarls with anger about being pushed back into the final corner and then digs in it’s heels that can bring in a new student. Their mouth and minds will have a story of wanting to get more exercise or get more in shape or just have fun, but down deep a forgotten part of themselves is screaming for one last chance at a normal life.
Sometimes when I teach, I see a class of happy people doing one more enjoyable hobby, happy and content that their efforts will…as they always do…return great rewards to them. And amongst that number I see the eyes of angry and fearful warriors fighting a last battle.
My fight is to make my school a place where we all work in co-operation. The happy ones teach the angry ones how to build themselves anew, and the angry ones teach the happy ones that there is a beast at their core that can carry them through the hardest times.
It’s a battle, a war that some of the students bring in every class. With every tentative effort at learning a new skill, they fight to claim a sense of what they might have been had they learned different lessons in life, had they been allowed to grow and prosper to their own will and desire, and not have been shaped by the crushing hand.
It’s a war I fight every time I pick up my sword.