That first big punch that lands on you drops your skill down to about a quarter of what it was. If it’s the first time you’ve been seriously hit, it’s a crossroads that will determine your fighting life for ever after. You can shrug off and tough out lesser blows, but the one that really rings your bells is the test. Just one of many in the life of a fighter…all important.

Swordplay is one of those martial arts that lends itself to a false confidence, and to fantasy. Bereft of bloodshed, and the true fear of it, our only judge of the reality and effectiveness of our systems becomes tenuous. We are unsure how to evaluate ourselves, so we are forced to rely on the wisdom of others. Truth can evaporate. People can spin wonderful webs of logic, and build a solid looking fantasy out of dusty cobwebs. Others can swagger and bluff with a false toughness, a desperate and pithy bravado. All these voices will stand confidently on their pedestals, and each will tell you that only they speak the real truth.

To me, the only value in a martial art is in the exploration of the self. Those of us who chose to fight to find ourselves do so because it’s our inclination to do so. I believe this is even more important than self-defense as a motivation. Defense of the self these days can be handled with a few hours of lessons…a gun…a knife…a loud voice…or even a cel phone. There is not much extra to be gained from years of hours of lessons. A proper understanding of the self, though, can help us enjoy and live life to the fullest, even in the worst circumstances.

You have to test yourself to grow. We each have little questions that nag us, that drive us to go back to class one more time to hunt the elusive answer. It’s important to ask those questions as clearly as we can. It’s even more important that we don’t let our teachers or peers dictate what questions we ask ourselves. We can’t let them make us wear their clothes if we want to be ourselves.

When we box, we learn what happens in our head when that kick rocks our head back, or slaps into a kidney. When we wrestle, we get to see how, or if, we can endure being crushed or smothered. With a sword…sometimes the hard lesson is learning to graciously accept that the delicate touch that landed on us was, indeed, a sign of our failure.

The voice inside us that rages that it wasn’t fair, that hits should land in a way that is more agreeable to us, is the petulant voice of a child. We might mask that child’s voice in adult logic that talks about reality or historical accuracy, but it’s still the whine of a child demanding that the universe be fair. The child might throw a tantrum and demand new rules or restrictions, or even have a fit and throw their toys away, declaring that it’s all fake anyway…and leave to find a new playground where they can continue to be a child. An adult might still hear the whine of the child in their own head, but will accept the failure as an answer.

Answers make you ask new questions, deeper questions. If I’m using swordplay to learn how hard a hit I can take, I should maybe take up a sport that actually requires hard hits, like boxing…and stop hiding behind a sword and mask. If I’m using swordplay to recreate a historical art, maybe I need to spend more time thinking about context…which aspect of an art am I trying test? Friendly sparring between students of a master, trying to show how well they have learned their lessons? Or playful bloodsport fueled by drink and laughter? The strict confines of a legal duel, under the watchful eyes of the weight of law, reputation and god? The gangland braggadocio of a neighborhood battle? Or the desperate ugliness of war, unhorsed, unarmoured, left only with sword? That’s a lot to test with a single touch against a stranger, win or lose. With context understood, the next questions should turn to the correctness of training and interpretation. Failure should drive deeper study and harder practice, not breed excuses.

Excuses might come from the child in our own head, but we should be able to quiet that voice and put it in it’s place. It’s harder to calm the voice of a child when it disguises itself as the voice of an adult, and speaks out of the mouth of a trusted teacher or respected personality. Harder still when we let that voice become our own.