Greatness: The Art of War

DAWNING
Even in my happy indifference to athletics, I could understand something of the competitor. The Olympian urges his body on toward the moment that will redeem the years and pleasures and normalcy he had laid on the altar of glory. He pursues the unrivaled to best himself. But men who attack one another – invite the blows and blood – and go on to hug after beating the brains out of each other? (Right, it is women who make no sense.) Baffling brutes, I’ve thought.

A year or so after my boy had started in Mixed Martial Arts and I too had learned some moves in self-defense, I was strolling past the octagon at the gym when the sparring in there took on a startling light. Suddenly, the irrational violence I’d dismissed made every bit of sense and the fluid logic of the moves blew me away in its beauty. So this was the art of war.

WONDER
I became intrigued by men who put themselves in harm’s way not in some noble cause for the greater good but to test themselves. Fascinated with these creatures of discipline – so many of them who I discovered are really nice guys – I went around the last two months asking fighters of all caliber in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, “Why do you fight?” But it was the questions under the question that pressed me. Aren’t you afraid? What do you do with that fear? What makes you spurn that bed of ease and climb the path of great resistance? Are you born different from the rest of us? What is the stuff of warriors – are they born or made – and what inner battles are you fighting?

These questions played in my head during a mesmerizing rerun of the epic fight between Dan Henderson and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in the summer.

A minute and a half into the first round, and blood rains over Shogun’s face. He stays bloody to the end. By the third round, both he and Hendo have drained their reserve. Round Four, they pummel. And Hendo looks at the clock. An eloquent moment: two hundred pounds of muscle and he wonders when he can stop.

The men hang by a thread through the distance, the longest 25 minutes of their lives. It’s not muscle in the last round. Shogun and Hendo find themselves in the mental corner. They have given up their all and for one of them, it won’t be good enough. What follows will ride on mind and will. Shogun gives Hendo a run for his money, but Hendo had done too much damage too fast from the first round not to win in the judges’ eyes. The call remains a technicality for many, fans the world over moved by the warrior spirit of both men.

Soon after, I caught some words from The Korean Zombie on the gym screen, a crash introduction to the relatively new but popular mixed martial artist who earned the moniker from his singular ability to plow through all injuries and blows. Thrilled to his wildest dreams that he was slated to fight UFC Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo, Chan Jung said, “I’m willing to put everything on the line…I would give my life to be fly1champion.” How stupid. How marvelous. Beautiful. I became enthralled. Three years he had chased the chance to take the title from the eight-year undefeated champion. I asked The Zombie in my head: What makes you define years of your life by a moment you hold in your dreams? Where does the confidence even come from, to disagree with the masses that your opponent is superior?

Aldo: “I don’t even see a chance of losing.”
Jung: “I push my opponent to his breaking point.”

FEAR
I had the recent privilege of reaching The Zombie in Seoul, Korea. His agent took the time to translate the interview and afford me a more personal acquaintance with the star. Chan, like some of the other fighters I’ve spoken with, ended up in martial arts after being bullied as a kid. His aunt enrolled him in Hapkido. As to the qualms, he echoes the others, “There is always the fear, but mostly of losing.” Fear of injury becomes a minor concern. After the first blow, they’re good (something I don’t quite get as a woman) – the anticipation over, the adrenaline on. Beyond any anxiety over a black eye, they’re afraid of letting the coaches and themselves down. The goal is to free themselves from the fear of fear. A Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructor at our gym says he competes to face his fear of vulnerability and stay ahead of his insecurities.

Former UFC champion Vitor Belfort said it simply on TV: “Nothing can distract.” The Korean Zombie doesn’t just dream. He labors in the vanguard of those who sweat, breathe, beat that dream into reality with this laser beam devotion. These guys seem to live on a different plane altogether. I remain mystified. All those months and years and daily dogged minutes of self-denial! Though C.S. Lewis was speaking of spiritual appetite in his observation that we are far too easily pleased, his commentary captures the human spirit. We worship comfort, especially as postmoderners. I am blown away by the single-minded who take no excuses for themselves, repudiate mediocrity, forgive nothing substandard. In this case, fighters put themselves at a place that exposes what they’ve got, what they’ve worked for: they ran the extra mile or they didn’t. The cage door closes and you have two guys hell bent on winning. No one trains to lose. They force each other to their best. The contenders risk it all before a watching world. And the months of toil can all go down in seconds. It hit me (pun intended) that this death grip on commitment resonates with me for the crazy work ethic Koreans have branded themselves by.

cameronTHE GLADIATOR
I had to puzzle out the deepest answer I was seeking in the interviews. The men told me, “I fight because it’s what I love. What I’m good at. The thrill of victory, the arm going up.” But why do you have to punch someone in the face to feel so good?

If man ever did evolve he stopped over 2,000 years ago. I realized MMA is not so new. I am watching the Spartan warrior and the Roman gladiator in their most primal fight for self-preservation. History is battle, the fiercest of physical arguments over land and power. My son has been learning, “Assyria falls to Babylon, Babylon to Persia, Persia falls to Alexander the Great.” The Conquerer has been redefining boundaries – of space and within himself – since ancient times and on he goes. Man’s quest for greatness.

LIVING THE DREAM
The current of the past carries these fighters on to their future. Competitor Phillip Brown is not only chasing his dream but living it. He stays present so that the training is not only a movement toward possibility but joy: “You wake up and realize it’s already tomorrow. You feel really alive. It’s a presence. All your hard work has paid off. All those minutes on the bag, all those tap-outs in practice. Tap-out means I need to get better. Martial arts is the art of bettering oneself. When that cage door shuts, I’m exactly where I wanna be: win, lose, or draw.” How many of us know exactly where we want to be?

THE ROAD AHEAD
Part of my fascination with these contenders stems from the mystery of the Other. They are talented with their body as I can never hope to be. After a year’s sorry attempt in Self-Defense, I discovered I have as much survival instinct as I do coordination. But I’m drawn to the sport for the resonance; I fill with hope and pride in people who seek excellence in their craft, partly for this very pursuit in the roles I have played as mother and as writer. Whether or not I have succeeded remains a different matter. But what I’ve asked the competitors were really parenting questions that continue to replay themselves. How much do I push my son to free him – to borrow from Gloria Vanderbilt – to follow his bliss? How do I encourage him to refuse distractions from his purpose? How to reconcile the wisdom of balance with the virtues I prize: stamina, discipline, passion? You lose, sometimes excise, a part of yourself for the greater gain on the hot trail of dreams.

“The tragedy in life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream.”  Benjamin Mays (1894-1984), American minister and educator

Enjoy the Wayfarer in MMA action here – most notably not in her element.

Greatness: Till Death Do You Part

Forty-two days after burning in a horrible fatal crash, Lauda jumped back on the Formula 1 track to defend his championship title against Hunt. Single-mindedness. Insane resolve.

I wasn’t into racing, but this was my kind of story. Lauda,_Niki_1973-07-06

The film Rush opens with a portrait of Hunt as a handsome, charismatic, successful racer, the world at his feet. Popularity and raw talent smile upon him. The pursuit of dreams for Lauda, on the other hand, is a fight from the get-go. Unable to lean on his illustrious family name, he risks everything to raise support and to bargain no-holds-barred for his first contract. Lauda becomes an expert on auto parts and aerodynamics, and exacts the fastest race car possible out of his engineers. It is the hospital where he will find himself in his fiercest battle. Both men embody greatness, but Lauda has my attention in the life-altering crash that almost claims his dreams and the way he handles the tragedy.

What do daredevils do with the fear? Bury it under the adrenaline? Just swallow it? Hunt, who seems to laugh at danger, throws up before every race. His eyes also betray the gnawing anxiety every time he comes across cars incinerated off the track. At the eleventh hour of the famous 1976 Grand Prix in Germany, Lauda calls a meeting to boycott the race in the face of the torrential rain. He has no peace about the circuit’s safety arrangements. Going through with the event is obviously asking for it. Hunt turns the room full of men who are scared alike, flouting Lauda as a self-serving coward unwilling to allow others a chance at the win. Classically high school, afraid of looking chicken as terrified as they are for their life, the guys put it to vote and the race goes on.

Lauda punctures his fuel tank, crashes at 170 mph, and the Ferrari erupts into flames. With the rescuers having trouble getting him out, he is trapped for over a minute in the inferno.

That he lives is a miracle. Lauda resists death by sheer force of will. The graphic hospital scenes, not for the faint-hearted, depict the human spirit at some of its most astonishing heights. On Day 28, the doctor comes to vacuum his lungs and warns it’s not going to be nice. He slips what looks like a very long thick metal rod down his throat to hose grey water and blood back up through a tube. Lauda grips the bed for life. And through roasted eyes that barely open, he watches Hunt on TV shaking his trophy. “Do it again,” Lauda orders through bruised lungs. He remains captive in bed as Hunt takes race after race on the screen, gaining upon Lauda’s lead in the world championship. You cringe with him the day he attempts to put his helmet on over the raw skin that is his head and face.

Ready for another victory on the tracks of the Italian Grand Prix with his rival out of the way, Hunt is stunned to learn Lauda has showed up six weeks after the accident. The movie doesn’t show him peeling off the blood-soaked bandages he undid in reality on site. Hunt approaches his arch nemesis in one of several poignant exchanges. He admits responsibility for swaying the vote that fateful day. “Yes, I watched you win those races while I was fighting for my life. You were equally responsible for getting me back in the car,” answers Lauda.

Lauda pushes himself to higher ground off the best of his opponent. No excuses. Not the ear he’s lost along with almost half his face and head. No matter that charred lungs protest every breath and his skin screams to the touch. He concentrates on what’s louder, the vow to remain equal to none. Rest? Heal? He might as well hand the years of his sweat and showdown with death over to his enemy. Lauda has fought many times over and there remains nothing but to preserve all he has built and achieved from scratch, the record of his undying determination. To be ruthless with his foe is to be so with himself.

The roar and smell of engines come at Lauda – trauma and inspiration. I wonder about the things that assaulted his mind as he waited to spring forward once again on that impossible road. The real racer off screen admitted to having been absolutely petrified, as credible heroes go. As some of us know, it is extremely difficult getting behind the wheel again after any auto accident.

The cars take off – and one after another pass Lauda. Sluggish, he weaves onto grass. Then drivers collide in front of him and he manages to clear through the alarming confusion. He surges forward. I won’t say how he places in the race but the crowd that rallies to this champion afterward reveals something of our longing to look up to, even worship, those who conquer themselves and light our hope.

Every race that follows the crash revisits the question of wisdom and foolhardiness, of fear and courage – and offers the men the chance to choose security over risk. The finals for the world title in Fuji finds Lauda at 68 points to Hunt’s 65. And it’s pouring. This time it’s Hunt who tries to call if off but the forces that be push the event forward. Drivers gun their engines at the starting line and you see Hunt and Lauda, grim inside cars that look like sleek coffins.

I rein in the eagerness to comment on the climax of this saga. But some beautiful moments that speak of relationships and character redemption sparkle throughout the edgy drama. They explore what competition does for us. In speaking of the final match where Hunt risks all to burst through the ranks, he later says to Lauda, “Yes, I was prepared to die to beat you, and that’s what made it so great.” In a high-stake sport like racing, victory seems a triple glory: you’ve subdued your will, vanquished your adversary, and evaded death. Hunt lets us in on the thrill of live-wire living: “the closer to death you are the more alive you feel.”

The photo above moves me to see Lauda looking upon it from the other side of time. There he sits three years before the accident after which doctors would give him up for lost, three years before he would find himself permanently disfigured. The picture tells of dreams, talent, hope, fortitude – a destiny. Though Rush gives us glimpses of the answers, I am left to wonder. What lessons did he take away from the years battling Hunt? Did he gain what he desired? Did loss redeem triumph? Has he ever let himself down in racing? Did victory bring joy?

 

Technology: The Dark Side of Efficiency, Finale

Of course we don’t feel drugged when cruising in cyberspace or playing a video game. Nor am I saying schools are not teaching history or providing solid language arts. I’m speaking of the proverbial frog in the water that’s getting unnoticeably hot. When kids go full throttle in all things virtual, it fosters a habit of the mind, affects how hospitable their brain grows to the rigors of reasoning that enables ease of articulation. Inhospitality in this case makes for inefficient learning, academic ill ease. Because you just can’t get the results in some things but through the old-fashioned road of exertion. How do you build muscle? Strength? There is no shortcut for the consistency of an hour’s sweat, four times a week. The sweat is proof of progress. The body can’t fool itself, so why do we think any differently of the developing mind? It is one thing to welcome structural and organizational timesavers in teaching and even in methodology. The features of Gmail alone can help streamline teaching beautifully. I would love to learn more ways to harness both wired and wireless power to facilitate instruction. It is a different story, though, when it comes to content and the discipline of the mind, what we expose eyes and brains to on a regular basis. Machines can’t think for us, at least in all the shades and emotional context the human brain functions. Quality books challenge the mind to hold something deep and expansive, along with sophisticated syntax and diction. We let Johnny off the hook in some tasks that require straightforward verbal and auditory attention. But I’ve always wondered to what extent we ourselves have been creating visual learners hooked on pictures that speak the 1000 words they’re becoming less capable of producing. Have we written off trained hypersensitivity to visual stimulation as a matter of learning style?

I am quite happy with my electricity and computer. And I don’t have muscle enough to survive on the prairie. For sure, technology has enhanced how broadly we communicate, relate, and learn. But I fear, at a price. The practice of waiting characterized life on the prairie. Season into season, the kids grew up hoping, anticipating, predicting things about the crop they had helped sow that was to be their very survival and nourishment. What is it that today’s youth have to wait for? Given over to machines in play and study, kids could end up paying for the efficiency we buy into with a laziness of the mind. We underestimate what our children are capable of, both the responsibilities they should bear and the skills they can apply themselves to. It is the Tiger Mom’s question I circle back to, the line I at times can’t easily make out between pushing too hard and encouraging too little.

Technology: The Dark Side of Efficiency, Part 4

Will kids accustomed to virtual magic tricks readily invite self-discipline, the handmaid of hard work? We express ourself through the click of likes and flurry of fingers on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (not saying I object to your liking this post). The breeziness with which kids are talking online from a progressively younger age will wear on their ability to articulate themselves on important matters. To frame an opinion, analysis, insight on literature, politics, faith. Navigating gizmos well does not mean they will be unable to communicate effectively. But obviously, times have changed.

P1030705Life is far different today from the Prairie Days when, sun-up to sun-down, physical exertion and problem-solving called upon both young and old. Though limited schooling often gave way to marriage or a trade in the pioneer days, when children did study they did not read and write clipped thoughts. Those able to pursue an education learned proper grammar and speech, were taught to recite the history of their nation so they could understand their place in the world, joined the Great Conversation of literature. That is, students took in and engaged written works that were a complete thought. Edith Schaeffer has said, “They need to love books, for books are the basis of literature, composition, history, world events, vocabulary, and everything else.”  There was an organic wholeness to the process of formal learning, of building the stamina called for in the training of the mind. Students did not have the option of flipping channels, websites, or even their own book pages every 30 seconds, dissatisfied with pictures or content that did not titillate. Rather than take the time to sit and drink in great works, more and more postmodern kids are looking to quench their thirst for visual excitement. The next hit. We don’t read LOTR and indulge our imagination anymore. We watch the epic and let the screen tell us what Middle-earth looked like. With each generation becoming literally more restless from the luxurious feast of options, how will it develop the patience needed to examine, ponder, question, argue, reason?

In his keen social commentary Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman teases out the effects of television viewing on the mind. In the briefest window of time, you can go from a news segment to a commercial to a soap opera, each presentation itself spliced by dizzying action, noise, and change of scenes. The watching brain gets a string of disjointed messages that remain incoherent together. Postman asserts that the problem of television is not what we watch but that we do. I suggest that with the infinite number of channels procurable on YouTube alone now, not to mention the 3-D magnetism of so-called kids’ movies, what the mind experiences is like the discrete, disconnected, visual provocation of the TV, on amphetamines.

Worship Hymn of a Tiger Mother [Thoughts on Achievement, Culture, Faith]

An article of mine, The Biblical Perspective of Achievement, due out this summer in Home School Enrichment magazine, was originally a a very personal response to Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. The author’s psychotic ambitions for her daughters resonated with my academic and professional enterprises, and her confessions happened upon my homeschool goals at a time when they were crystallizing.

A walking paradox, I am a product of Asian rearing and intense east coast academic milieu, a former teacher of the gifted and talented program, an eventual coast-to-coast transplant converted happily to the gentler lifestyle of California, and a Christian. These thumbprints converged on the table where I set out to homeschool my son and pulled at me in different directions.  he new hippy mom disapproved of Amy’s coercions upon her kids while the dormant tiger from NY found herself assenting to her convictions.

Amy did not homeschool.  My struggle to place the issue of achievement correctly in the context of my faith happens to apply in the home.  Here’s a glimpse of the article:

Homeschooling opens a family to freedom in style and pace not viable in schools. Free reign in hand, I watched my boy full of joie de vivre opine at three and a half years, “obla dee, obla da, life goes o-o-o-n, la la life goes o-o-on,” and wrestled with the the unsophisticated question I had trouble answering. So how much do I push this little guy? For the way I had let it tip my life even to the compromise of my health, hard work is a practice and philosophy I still struggle to keep in the balance. The answer well may easily present itself to other Christian parents but as a workaholic I found myself picking through what were defining cultural, educational, professional, even physical experiences to sort out a lay theology of achievement as both parent and home educator.

There is a cost to anything worth achieving.  he building blocks of accomplishment are sacrifice. How much of it then, was I willing to exact from my son? My parents immigrated and, raising me here by the sweat of their brow, bequeathed to me the firstfruits of something American culture offers so wonderfully: the assumption of choice. The freedom to pursue my passion with no obligation beyond itself.  I say firstfruits because while I did not have to study and work to stay alive at the crude level my parents struggled, my drive to excel academically and professionally was not entirely free of constraints. There was an element of spurn against the prejudice my parents faced and a mission to redeem their suffering.  My child, however, remains at liberty – even at leisure – to dream and indulge his gifts.  In short, to enjoy his work when he’s grown and to explore the options along the way. Will this freedom weaken him or his character in any way? The fact that he is under no compulsion to be or do something? That he is, well, comfortable? After all, comfort does not soldiers make. You build muscle by defying resistance.  And the higher you set the bar, the more you get out of the reach. The stretch up as well as the one down into the resources of the spirit where character is forged. All to say some measure of trial is good for the soul.  So if survival in an unfamiliar country would remains exigency, what should we be straining for in our studies and why?

The Year of Learning Dangerously by Quinn Cummings

When her middle-grade daughter doesn’t look as though she’ll ever master elementary math, Quinn pulls the trigger on herself and succumbs to the homeschooling she had half-toyed with in earlier years.  Mom chronicles the series of expeditions she sets out on in pursuit of first-hand insight into the different provinces of approach in homeschooling.  Apart from the trademark humor and her skillful writing, what I appreciate is her open-mindedness and the curiosity that never fails to reward.  Her action research takes her across the gamut of groups whose worldview has no congruity with hers, from unschooling hippies to the most insular fundamental Christians.  I like how the book closes a year’s trial in the new schooling – on a humble note of reposed uncertainty.  The different homeschool camps stake everything on their own philosophy and method.  But every child, every family is unique.  And along the way, life happens.  Quinn keeps it real.  The narrative is more about Mom’s movement through knock-kneed trepidation to creative resourcing, than it is about the student’s educational needs and strides.

Author response to the repeat question from her community on whether the family was going to continue homeschooling – from her final chapter:

In the extended dance remix, this question became: Are you going to continue to give Alice the benefits of one-on-one attention and open-ended time for self-discovery, to the possible detriment of her later ability to work in groups?  Or are you going to send her back to a public/private school and take the chance she’ll never develop a self-generated work ethic, but at least she’ll get some time away from your weirdness?  Of course, what some of them really wanted to know was: Quinn, will you ever wear real pants before noon again?  

I’d been asking myself the same questions.  The answer to all of them turns out to be: maybe.

I’m still nowhere near as confident about homeschooling as some of the parents I’ve met this year and I probably never will be.  This education we’re giving Alice is an experiment and not every experiment succeeds…but I feel considerably better about the choices we’re making.  Alice will learn and she will blossom and she will have friends.  If her current education stops working, I hope I will have the clarity to figure out what she needs and the fortitude to get it.  I’m pretty certain the options will grow wider and more interesting with each passing year.

I also know some lessons are best learned at a kitchen table and some lessons are best learned in a gymnasium, a lecture hall or a chemistry lab.  It would be nice if every student had better access to every option, and I anticipate that over the next decade they will.  For the first time in recent memory I’m looking at something that matters very, very much to me and feeling neither dread nor angst.  Oddly enough, I’m feeling optimistic.

It’s been an instructive year.

Born To Run by Christopher McDougall

It was my husband who got me on the book three years ago.  He couldn’t help read aloud sections to me.  It wasn’t only about the running (the word alone bored and deterred me).  He said there was all this stuff about natural health, with mention of the chia seeds I prepared for the family.

P.E. was my least favorite class when I was growing up and I never could walk long, let alone run, for the flat feet.  Not an athletic bone in this body — and I couldn’t put the book down.  Holistic Husband’s way of putting it: “Makes you want to go out and run.”  The various stories of the runners – their persistence to an impossible goal, the freedom they discovered in the laboring – inspired me to get back on my feet.  Two miles is nothing to most people, but learning how to run efficiently helped me pull off this miracle for starters.  I also gained a vision for the heights of activeness we could encourage our son toward – not that he has to run ultras.

Some beautiful occasions in the book:
~ The writer stumbles on the Tarahumara of Mexico, an ancient tribe renowned for their long-distance running and longevity.  What moved me is how the Indians run not to win races but for the unmoderated fun and joy of it.  They are all there, in the moment. A reminder of how to live.
~ For the first time in history, a motley crew of American and Indian runners gather at table on Tarahumara ground the eve of an epic race.  It is the penultimate scene before the climactic end to the story.  You feel the magic of the camaraderie, how simple and profound their fellowship and kindness toward one another on the cusp of their fierce inaugural competition.
~ The two chief contenders from opposite sides of the border, Scott and Arnulfo, find that they run exactly the same.  On a practice sprint, they parallel up a rocky trail. Twin happy, powerful strides conjoin from two different eras.

I wasn’t crazy about the style in the starting chapters – a bit fragmented.  But finishing the nail-biter of a race and closing the book, I wanted more.