Courage is an interesting concept. I think a lot of people associate courage with brave or substantial acts that put the courageous person in harm’s way. For me, courage is much smaller than that. It is the thing that gets benched when fear steps onto the field. With fear in the spotlight, there was no room for courage, so it sat patiently and waited for that time when it could break free of all others and score the winning whatever (I don’t watch sports, so use your imagination). And it sat there a long time, waiting for that fear to take a much needed water break so it could jump up and say, “I’m ready coach!” Last year, I benched fear a few times, and let’s just say that my ego was not impressed. What was this unfamiliar feeling? Courage? Back on the bench! So fear reigned.
But during those brief moments where my fear sat out, my courage gently nudged me to be better. To let my inner self shine. To feel okay with not being in a constant state of fear. I struggled. Boy, did I struggle. But a funny thing happened: it got easier. I could go longer periods of time without my fear dictating how I should act or how I should feel. And I realized that I wanted to make the decision to bench fear for the next inning/period/sports analogies aren’t my thing and I should have given up ages ago. It was important to me that I made the distinction between deciding and allowing. Not making active decisions about your life is a decision in itself. I may have thought that I was allowing fear to rule me, but I was actually deciding that it was okay to not work harder to get the things I wanted. By not deciding to do anything about it, I was deciding that I was alright with digging myself into a rut and staying there, wallowing in self-pity over the things in my life that had not turned out the way I had dreamed they would. This realization, combined with a brief bout of courage, pushed me to karate, and it is the reason I am talking about courage today.
I can’t be sure where I got the idea that karate was something I wanted to do. Martial arts had not entered my mind in any way before that (and a small part of me thought maybe I was too “old” to try learning something so intense). I’d been thinking for a few months about how I wanted to get in better shape, but I also knew that the reason I wasn’t already in good shape was more to do with my psychological issues than anything else. So I started thinking about different physical activities that would discipline and strengthen my body and mind. Martial arts seemed fitting so I started researching (because I don’t jump into anything impulsively), and after a few months, I made the decision to go to a dojo near my work and check it out. Nothing was scarier than that first trip in except for the first day I tried a class. I circled the area a few times before I actually went there to chat with them about joining. It’s silly, but my heart raced, and a part of me was pulling the old, “Let’s just not. Let’s go home where it’s safe and comfortable and we can pretend this never happened.” Shut up, brain.
I had a brief chat with Sensei Ryan about the class, the cost, and the commitment. Increased heart rate: go! He suggested I try a couple of classes before I decided to commit. One year. That was the commitment I was to make if I decided to join the class. One whole year of coming to a class twice a week. I don’t remember exactly what went through my head when he said that, but I imagine it was a lot of, “You can’t do that. That’s a long time. What if you don’t like it? What if you’re bad at it? What if people are mean to you? What if they judge you? What if….” But he told me I’d know after one or two classes whether or not it was something I wanted to do. Turned out, it was. I bought the gi and wrapped that white belt (incorrectly the first time) around my waist, and I let courage out for a bit. It didn’t last long.
I hadn’t realized that I would struggle so much initially. I really was in horrible shape, and I was in a class with a bunch of young people around the 13 to 16 age range who could just go and go and go. My physical struggles led to more emotional and psychological struggles, and sometimes, it was so hard for me to get past those that I would just go home instead of going to class because I was afraid and worried about what other people thought of me. I couldn’t keep up, and I always felt like they judged me for that—they, of course, did not but I felt like they did. There were days when I’d leave class and just cry because I felt so terrible. It has taken me almost a full year to finally feel good about where I am in karate, and the only thing that has changed in that year is me. My class is still as supportive, as helpful, and as fun as it always was, but my mindset has changed. Instead of seeing myself as the one who couldn’t keep up, I see myself as the white belt turned yellow belt who is less timid and more willing to try something instead of just getting frustrated and giving up on myself. Sensei Ryan pegged me pretty accurately when he referred to the “Meagan look”: the “I know what I’m doing but seem to think I don’t” look. The truth is, I am very hard on myself and will often not try new things if I think I will be bad at them or will make a fool of myself in some way. I look at the issues I had initially in karate and it all basically boils down to that. I felt useless at what I was doing because I felt like I should be good at it from the start. I remember a chat I had with him once where he told me, “You’re a white belt. You’re exactly where you should be. Everyone started in the same place as you, so don’t get frustrated when you can’t do something. Just keep doing it.”
When I watched the young kids in the class before mine, I wanted to be like them. They didn’t care if they didn’t quite get something. They tried it. They failed. They tried it again. They failed. And they smiled. They were having a good time learning. I was not. I was so focused on the fear I had that I couldn’t even fully enjoy every class. Deciding to put my fear aside has drastically changed my mind about karate. It’s been a year since I joined, and I’m finally looking at the amazing things I’ve accomplished and the equally amazing way that karate has changed me.
I’ve moved through my white belt and into my yellow, and there is significance in the tie between this and courage. My white belt, which I assumed signified my inexperience, in fact represented courage. With each belt level, the student moves into a new quality to master or at least better appreciate. I can say without hesitation that I have a great appreciation for the courage it took for me to make it to my yellow belt and that I look forward to allowing that courage to take my fear out at the knees and remove it from the game permanently.