Zen and the Art of Embarrassing Oneself

The conversation goes something like this…

 

“What do you do?”

“Me? I’m CTO for a cloud company”

*awkward silence*

“What’s that?”

That’s how a lot of first social interactions go for me and, to be honest, I’m never exactly enthused to follow up with an explanation of what it actually is. Don’t get me wrong, my job is fine, but something I heard recently has got me thinking.

My kids go to karate on a Saturday morning and their Sensei, Matthew David Powell of Petersfield Shotokan Karate, gave a powerful speech to the junior group that really struck a chord with me. He told them about the importance of being different, about how at school the pressure is on you to conform, and how you don’t realise until you grow up that being different and unique is what really counts.

I really should be too old for life lessons, but the thought hasn’t left me.

When my 8 year old son asked me in the car on the way home, “Will you be embarrassed doing grading?” (we have a karate grading coming up), I answered, “Not really. I’m just pleased Sensei has put me forward”. His response was, “But will it be nice for you to not have to wear a white belt any more?”.

You see, I am a white belt. In other words, I just started.

My two eldest boys are 8 and 6 and when my wife and I first took them to karate to try it out, we ended up discovering  the fantastic Applied Karate Association that seems to teach so much more than karate. It teaches respect, humanity, humour, dignity, support for each other, and the best kind of pride imaginable. The 8 year old can’t get enough, but our 6 year old became shy and self-conscious about going. So, with the approval of the Senseis, I joined in to help encourage them both.

Picture it at that first lesson…

A line of junior kids wearing their pristine, white karate kit (a Gi) and their coloured belts, then there’s me, in a tracksuit, because I haven’t yet shown the commitment.

Can you just imagine how embarrassing that looked?

Well sure, I can’t deny I felt those things, but I’m not embarrassed, because I think my white belt stands for something.

It stands for…

  • Us as a family. I love my family and will do all I can ever do to help them, so this was an easy choice. (Note to reader – I cant deny, I’m pleased it wasn’t ballet;  nobody needs to see me in tights!).
  • The fact that I committed to learning karate. When I’m in the lessons, I fully commit and, as a result, I have fallen in love with the discipline myself. When the junior class ends, I now stay on for the adult class right after, and when work allows, we all do the same mid-week; that’s 4-5 hours a week! And in between I can’t wait until the next one.
  • The fact that I’ve started doing something you perhaps wouldn’t associate someone starting at my age, or in fact with my body’s physical problems.
  • Me taking a new approach to fitness and body care.
  • Me having an open mind to new things, excited to learn the discipline beyond the movement that this particular club makes so appealing.
  • The attitude of the Senseis, who welcomed me in and who tirelessly go out of their way to show me just how to frame my shoulders, where to bend my legs, how to close my fist, how to breathe and patiently work me through my ineptitude.

This white belt is not the bottom rung.

This white belt is the first step of a ladder, a ladder that all my family are helping each other climb in their own way.

Do I look out of place in that junior session? Do I look silly standing in a shop on the way home with a white belt? It’s different perhaps, but not silly. I’m proud of that difference and I’m proud of my white belt.

When my wife gets asked the question about what she does, she replies with a hint of embarrassment, “I’m just a mum”, but that is also nothing to be embarrassed about; that decision was one we took as a family, and it certainly doesn’t define her. She is also a cyclist, a friend, an advisor along with many other things.

To move on to more advanced karate, I need to grade. I don’t need to grade to have karate improve me or help my family. It’s doing that already.

So no, my challenge isn’t to wear the white belt now, my challenge is to take all that it means and carry it on, if and when I grade. We will do that as a family and, as I hopefully improve and get higher grading belts, I know the best way to carry on that difference is to be like the Senseis at the club. If I ever do reach a black belt for instance, what it will mean to me will be being in charge of helping a white belt frame their shoulders, bend their knees the right way, clench their fists properly and to breathe in the correct way.

“What do you do?”

“Me? I’m a Dad. And I practice karate with my children”.

A much better answer I think.


Rik is a 45 year old persistent spouter of random thoughts with aspirations to become narcoleptic. When unable to spend time with family and friends, he pretends to understand the latest technology trends and has a degree in shaking his head at the world reproachfully.

 

 

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