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  • Daniel Kephart

Learning to Let Go

Updated: Jan 16, 2019

A Lesson from Martial Arts


I huffed, panting heavily, as I ducked to avoid the bamboo stick that whistled through where my head had been. Straightening up, I met the stick's return swing with my own, sliding forward towards my opponent's left as I did. Success. I had managed to edge past his side. I had outmanuevered his defenses. There was a blur of motion as he reajusted, but it was too late. In seeking to regain his position, my instructor had overcompensated. A moment later, I had wrapped my free arm around his bamboo weapon, neutralizing his main-hand. He was at my mercy.


This was a big deal for me. Here I was, in my second year of private instruction in Escrima, and I had finally gotten the upper hand on my master. These sparring sessions usually ended with my stick flying helplessly from my grasp, or me pinned to the ground, seething in frustration. This time, though, I had done it. I had bested my master. Having neutralized his weapon, he was at my mercy. Or so I thought.


In that moment, my master did the unthinkable. He let go of his weapon. Then, before I had to register what had just happened, he clocked me in the face. Then he gave me a good hard shove. I landed in the dust, dazed and embarassed. I looked up. He smiled down, amused.


"No fair," I protested, "you can't just let go!"


He shrugged, still smiling. "Why not? The stick was useless."


Anyone who practices a martial art knows that this is typical. One thing all martial arts have in common is this: They are a discipline in humiliation. No matter how good you think you are, someone is better. Much better, usually. Simultaneously, though, the problem isn't the person you're fighting. It's you.


But then, you probably already knew this. When you want to study, you watch Netflix instead. When you want to ask someone out, you visualize every possible way in which it could go wrong. When you want to have a healthy relationship with your family, you jeopardize it by reckless spending. It's just like 90s punk band said, you are your own worst enemy.


Martial arts drives this home by constantly providing you with a tangible reminder of your failures: Pain. Worst of all, it's always your fault. It's rare that you suffer a blow you couldn't have avoided. You could have been more careful. You could have been smarter. You could have finished the fight sooner.

But while martial arts lays this on pretty thick, it also teaches something else. You have to let go of your drive to win. Because you won't. Not every time, anyway. Not if you want to grow.


Floyd Mayweather, the greatest defensive boxer of all time, defeated Conor McGregor in a boxing match. This was Mr. Mayweather's 50th win. He has no losses. The boxing ring is Mayweather's undisputed territory. Yet he has declined, thus far, to set foot in the octogon of Mixed Martial Arts. Why? Because, while Mayweather has boxing down pat, he can't hope to compete in a realm where wrestling, kick-boxing, and unorthodox striking is the norm. There are just too many variables.


Life isn't boxing. Life is Mixed Martials Arts. Actually, it's even more complicated. The rules of life aren't codified in a universally agreed upon source. Adaptation is required. And adaptation sometimes requires embracing failure. It requires letting go of the stick when it becomes useless.


At first, this seems pretty pessimistic. It's very difficult to confront just how unreliable almost everything in life is without becoming cynical. Ultimately, however, this is a notion that is supremely optimistic. You can let go of the stick, the job, the unhealthy friendship, because it isn't what defines you.


Sometimes my master would ask, "What makes you dangerous?"


Early on, the response seems simple. The knife, my fist, my training, my aggression. Later on, though, it doesn't feel that way. My instructor dropped his weapon, but he was still plenty dangerous. He wasn't that aggressive either. He just did what was necessary. And that made him dangerous.


Next time life knocks you into the dust, consider it for a second. What were you holding onto that life decided to take away? Are you desperately holding onto the fleeting pleasures of a Netflix binge when you should be getting some sleep? Or maybe you're hesitant to relinquish youthful independence in a relationship that requires teamwork. Whatever it may be, maybe it's time to let go.


In fact, yes, it probably is time to let go.


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