Teaching, Arrogance, Satan, Speaking-up

A couple of days ago I was showing a young work mate some jiu-jitsu techniques. He’s been excited about learning them ever since learning that I teach jiu-jitsu for part of my living. We hauled out a mat in the large newly refurbished room at the business owned by a friend of mine who also wants a chance to do some jiu-jitsu, and I taught him a basic entangled armlock from his back. We did a few of those and a few exercises to get used to ground movement and called it a lesson.
Within a few minutes he was telling me about some personal life details, and I learned he had a daughter through his estranged wife, and that he struggled with this because she didn’t like him near his daughter (not necessarily unusual). He’s a young man, not thirty yet, and very energetic. He wants to come train at one of my usual locations but hasn’t got a vehicle. Not that this is unique, but probably causes some difficulties in fulfilling his wishes. We discussed such problems with life for a little while as well as discussing fighters (inevitably) and his hopes for his daughter. Soon enough, while I was on autopilot, always a bit of a problem when I’m chatting with folks—as often the topic drifts into realms I’m not remotely interested in and I’m just being polite—he begins talking about Satan.
Satan. Satan is apparently in Disney cartoons, as Disney himself was a Satanist and his agenda was spreading the worship of the dark lord throughout America. He stipulated a few moments in various cartoons that I have no connection with nor knowledge of. I’ve neither watched these shows, nor heard anyone in particular pointing out the Lucifer connections. And while I can wholly imagine a lout like Alex Jones selling this wild idea, I hadn’t heard it before. My young friend, we’ll call him Watson, was adamant despite my not having any reaction whatsoever. I didn’t even raise an eyebrow. He rambled on a bit further about Satan and I just said, “I don’t know anything about that.” And I felt like a wimp. I felt like someone who drove by a woman screaming for help in the night. Or perhaps someone who saw a car accident but didn’t stop to see if he could help. I argued with myself in an almost metaphysical out-of-body way. I watched the scene almost separated from it. Why was I avoiding saying anything? Why couldn’t I at least tell him I seriously doubted the material he was spouting had any veracity at all? Was it just politeness?
Later, after a few days had passed and I was chatting with a lady friend, I related this tale and she laughed and said she was sure she would not have bothered either. “You aren’t going to reach him, she said. He’s too far gone. Don’t waste your time. It’s like asking for a headache.” She added, still laughing.
I understand her perspective, but I also feel like I owe some truthfulness to this fellow, this fellow who was calling me sensei (teacher or coach in Japanese) and possibly looking to me for a response. There is an arrogance in assuming ourselves teachers and I worry deeply that that arrogance is unhealthy and wholly unattractive, this is a theme of my existence: the desperate aversion to arrogance.
I have a friend who runs a Karate school, and we’ll call him Earnest. Earnest is an almost maddeningly righteous fellow in his early forties, married with a couple of kids of his own, he’s been running his own dojang for about ten years now and is fairly proud of it. I mean fairly in the sense that it’s fine, in my opinion, for him to be proud of his accomplishments. His righteousness is mostly a kind of Southern Baptist derivative as his outlook is very anti-alcohol (for those of you who don’t know the SB church doesn’t even accept that the ancients drank alcohol they firmly imagine Jesus was offering literally grape juice at the last supper), and permanently oriented on a kind of father knows best and women should toe that line. His art is Korean and he maintains their rank rule for keeping equally ranked women lined up below the men. We’ve spoken to him about this. We’ve spoken to him about many things. And even when he will finally concede a point nothing will happen. He wants to devote to what he thinks of as tradition over the modern social, and American outlook. In fact, recently he had the opportunity to speak to a Korean national with a Masters in Taikwondo. This fellow let Earnest know that the Korean language he was using for the techniques was in fact, no longer in use. Earnest could not have been more pleased he saw himself as the last of a dying breed!
None of this is particularly upsetting to me as Earnest takes classes in jiu-jitsu from me, and allows me to make a bit of money out of his space. He’s a good fellow in that sense and has really never caused me any difficulties. I’ve only been wishing we could improve our circumstances with a bit of an uplift both to the facade and to the attitude we present. Earnest likes to sell his Karate to “families”. It’s not a bad plan as the parents are often there to be with their kids, and if he can lure them onto the mat too he has the opportunity to make a bit of extra money. Where this plan falls apart, in my mind, is in the make-up of his class in which he teaches to all as if he were teaching children. Also adults are often pairing up with tiny kidsies and can’t really work out (as kids require a lot of extra energy and time to sort out their coordination, plus they’re just too little to get an active idea of attack and defense). I’ve spoken to him about this but he’s adamant about doing things his way. And well, aren’t we all? And well, who am I to tell him what to do? And stubbornness.
Built into the Korean term for his rank as teacher is the term father. And he takes it very seriously to behave in an almost fatherly fashion to everyone, no matter how smarmy it may seem. Even to adult people who it would normally, you would think, offend. But, then, I’m a martial artist who no title and no preoccupation with ego. I don’t do what I do to savor some special place in front of people, and I think it’s rather normal that others do. We’re back to the Maslow self-esteem discussion from an essay or two back. Earnest lives his role as karate teacher. He sees it as more than a dance instructor—which is something very similar but better paid—and more like a “life coach”.
As an academic I’ve been trained to back out of conversations in which I do not have expertise. I’ve found that in most areas of the real world in which academics are not involved this a rare thing. Most folks bluster and boldly go where they have no business going. They not only nominate themselves knowledgeable enough to argue, they argue vehemently even without much information. And even when it is clear their voices have no real value or qualification. I’m not sure why this is, but I presume folks imagine (at least in this country) that it’s a kind of constitutional right to be a loud dope. Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones sell lots of product and make tons of money doing exactly this. Neither of those gentleman have any particular expertise beyond entertainment. They simply pretend to because someone thought it would be a good idea to give them a platform (largely to sell stuff).
I don’t say much. I’m not sure why I don’t say much. I think it’s because I mostly am not concerned about things, but there are times when I’m sure we could improve our business (as I mentioned) by altering how we engage with potential customers and how we behave on social media. And by we I mean Earnest. Earnest can be very, let’s say, overbearing. I know why. He grew up a kid who absolutely loved authority. Growing up he loved and revered the institutions and his teachers. As a middle-aged man he is still in contact with some of his high school teachers! And his karate teachers got special worship. They can and never did any wrong. He worshiped these people and is bewildered when other people aren’t as reverent as he is. His reverence is his downfall. Most other people grow up to put institutions and regulations in a particular place in their lives, we think of these things as guidance or advice. Earnest grew up imagining these things were the immutable rules and hoped to join the ranks of the teachers and preachers who he thought of as special learned folks who deserved admiration. I feel badly about needing to tell him that the thing he wants most is prestige and frankly it doesn’t exist. Well, at least not with adults, not healthy adults. But then maybe the sort of adults who still imagine a god-like being is watching over the world and their every action, do expect a kind of “father” figure leading their lessons. This makes me shudder, frankly. I’m not saying there’s nothing to respect in what we do. What I’m saying is that the reverence he seeks isn’t healthy. When he calls his instructions “family” martial arts he more seems to intend to insert himself into their families as a head.
I do suppose we all like to preserve those things we liked best about the occupations we undertake. I like to teach jiu-jitsu the way my teacher taught it even though he no longer teaches that way (he makes more money now with the regiment and discipline approach). In the end, what we do we do for fun, and from my perspective it isn’t particularly important beyond that enjoyment of developing a skill and using that skill on the mat for self-defense and fitness. I don’t see a reason to suggest to my students that I’m a mentor for them beyond that. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve got life advice to offer and all it takes is a quick look at my poverty and reliance on friends for their donation and you can see that the life of a guy making his money from teaching some esoteric skill isn’t terribly rewarding. Incidentally, I have the same trouble recommending higher education. I have a PhD that lead me to nothing as well. And while I still believe everyone should pursue some education (in fact, your voice can’t be taken seriously without some expertise) I can’t pretend that I have any kind of mentorship to offer beyond jiu-jitsu. This attitude is nearly anathema to people like Earnest. He sees his accomplishments in the karate realm as being universally satisfactory for all sorts of discussion and argument. He expects his skills on the mat to translate into qualification for virtually any social or political opinion he may bluster. This makes me cringe. But in our society he’s really not entirely wrong to expect it. We put people who are little more than celebrities, especially entertainers, into positions of power all the time. We ask musicians their opinions on health care. We write articles that reference novelist’s outlook on economics. We ask Wall Street gamblers to talk about the environment. And, of course, preachers with no particular special training, are expected to mentor their worshipers without a doubt and without question. We are full of this misplaced trust in the value of untrained voices. It is normal in America for people to turn to “the man in the street” for a low-down on some event or other. We seem to have an endless appetite for the stupid. The internet, of course, has only worsened this tendency by making it much easier to give untrained and unqualified voices platforms to make noise from. Still I want to tell Earnest to reel in his non-expert reach. Our martial skills are our expertise and that’s it. Of course if someone who I consider a friend, as many of my students become, were to ask me my opinion on a topic, OK I’d provide. But I’d also qualify by saying, hey, I’m no expert in that realm.
I feel like I let the world and myself down by not pointing out certain of these concerns. Satan is not in your breakfast cereal or your kid’s cartoons mainly because there’s no such thing (I seriously can’t imagine how people manage to go through their lives filled with such nonsense). And people who are good at one thing should not assume themselves fit to be replacing your plumbing or treating your health issues unless of course they have experience in those realms. When these ideas are so ingrained and familiar though I’m not sure what particular effect I’m likely to produce. I did once broach the topic with Earnest years ago when I was a bit surprised that he was so eager to give people life advice beyond the walls of his karate school. His response was that my perspective was “interesting”. Which, of course, was his way of dismissing it. I was likely making him uncomfortable and I dropped the topic.
Maybe we get to lead a bit by example. Maybe my Satan seeing friend earlier can learn that I do just fine without worrying about Satan all the time. And maybe my friend Earnest will eventually understand that we can live quite well without garnering prestige at every opportunity. Possibly I too can stop worrying about being the arrogant professor.
Sarah Silverman did this thing on Seinfeld’s terrific little show with comics and coffee in cars and it’s probably something only she could get away with. She told a story about turning to a young woman who was apparently holding her face in a very uncomfortable and unattractive manner and said, “I’m going to change your life forever . . .” and told the girl to relax and smile and it totally fixed her. Anyone but Silverman would have been met with nothing but consternation and stubbornness, probably. But I can imagine the appeal of the friendly life-changing, albeit somewhat arrogant, gesture. If one is right however, and kind, and honest . . . possibly it could work out. Or I’m just asking for a headache!

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