Four Life Lessons I Learned From Being Bad at Martial Arts
It’s hard to overstate the clarifying power of losing a fight. For the last few years, I’ve kept a standing appointment to lose several, mostly on weekday mornings.
My preferred genre of fight-losing comes in a gym for jiujitsu, a martial art some UFC fighters employ when they grapple on the ground. It’s wrestling, basically, with a mean endgame.
I should say right here that I’m quite bad at jiu-jitsu. If the sport were high school, I’d be fumbling my way through an undistinguished freshman term. But since I took it up a few years back at 39, as a father of two with a demanding job and overwhelming schedule, it has become a kind of lifeline for me.
In these wrecked times, my jiu-jitsu practice has consisted of sparring with my wife, who took up the sport with me, in our basement. It’s often the best part of my day. Confronting my own lack of mastery of this martial art — and trying like hell to get better at it — has taught me some vital stuff about cognition, privilege, and, above all, humility.
The true meaning of “humility”
The film director Guy Ritchie also trains in jiu-jitsu, and he recalled in an interview that at first people at his gym jokingly called him “Hollywood,” because he was the only celebrity there. “That lasted all of 30 seconds,” he told the interviewer. “You have no currency on the mat other than your currency on the mat. There’s a real clarity in that.”
I’m no celebrity, but if I’m honest, I tend to feel pretty proud of my luck. I’m proud of being a father. Of marrying an excellent person. Of my academic success, and my interesting job in an interesting city. I carry this currency at work, in social situations, even in my own home.
But on the mat, it counts for very little. The gym where I trained before the pandemic is a place where someone much younger than me, and with far fewer of the privileges I’ve accumulated or been born into, can be so far my superior at jiu-jitsu that I’ll kneel behind them at the start of class, out of respect. When I step into the gym, my currency — the stories I tell at parties, whatever respect I’ve earned at…