The Fear of Failing

Earlier, I wrote about the art of falling, that learning to fall teaches us how to stand up, that we should not be afraid of falling. This also got me thinking about my earliest forays into the martial arts. From the ages of 11 through 20, I tried karate twice and judo. The first time with karate was a class at a Y which lasted a few months and after which, my brother and I decided we wanted to go someplace else. No real reason, just that’s what we wanted to do. With judo, which started almost immediate after, I was in more or less through junior high school into my junior year of high school then off and on during the first year or so of college. I logged maybe six years altogether. That kind of overlapped with karate at the University of Hawaii, which I did for a couple of years and then stopped.

There was always a reason that I stopped like spending more time doing concert band stuff in high school, injuries, getting ready to graduate from UH, but I did stop. I failed to achieve the goal that I had set, which was to get to shodan (first degree black belt). It wasn’t like I wasn’t interested, after all, my senior paper was on the martial arts, I continued to read and research martial arts related things, the goal/dream of being a yudansha didn’t disappear. It would be easy to say that those earlier styles didn’t suit me, but that’s only part of the answer. Yes, aikido was a much better fit, both physically and intellectually, for me, but that wasn’t all. I wasn’t ready. I failed primarily because I wasn’t really there yet. I had “better things” to do. After all, in the “blank” periods (last year or so of high school and the last couple of years of college until I got to Japan a few years later), I did graduate high school, college, and graduate school. I made my first and arranged my second trips to Japan. I published poems. In a real way, my first “shodan” was my MFA.

But those earlier failures bothered me. I didn’t fail very often, and when I was failing, I usually found a way out. Did I just not have it in me? Was doing something like a martial art just too hard for me to make it to that basic level of mastery? This is what I was thinking about when I left for Japan the second time and started to do aikido in Fukui. But more than bothering me, those earlier failures taught me a lot about myself, about timing, and about finding the right fit. Here’s where people usually quote Ecclesiastes, but I’ll talk about Musashimaru, the retired yokozuna.

When Musashimaru was a komusubi or sekiwake (fairly high ranks in sumo), there was a lot of hand-wringing about why he didn’t seem to progress. He was stuck there for a long time, even though he had the size, skills, and strength to make yokozuna right then. But there was a thought hanging out there that he’d get there when he was good and ready, and eventually, he did. He failed to progress a number of times, but when he was ready, he climbed to the top.

Failing at karate and judo was good for me. It taught me that failing was often not fatal, and that there was a lot more to be learned from the effort than in just “winning” especially if that winning came easy. I learned that failing can be good for you, can make you stronger, but also failing doesn’t take away how much I hate “losing.”

Now, I’m a sandan in aikido, two ranks higher than what I had originally shot for. Granted, the failures in karate and judo don’t sting like they did 20 years ago, and from the point of view of someone who’s struggling as I did back then, this post can sound condescending, but trying and failing and trying again, having analyzed the earlier failure has made me less afraid of taking calculated risks or trying things out on what I perceive to be the fringe of my limits.

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