How The Art of The Story, Changed My Martial Life
Appius Claudius Caecus, a Roman politician was quoted as saying:
faber est suae quisque fortunae
(every man is the artisan of his own fortune)
Secretly I have always had this quote in my wallet. At times when things got tough, I would pull it out to remind myself of what he said. It is as true today, as it was at the time he uttered those words.
We all have a life story. It is our story that shapes not only how we live, but what we become. At times, we hold competing stories in our heads, or find ourselves living a story that someone else had crafted for us. Even when we know the kind of story we want to live, we can become consumed by self doubt, insecurities and think twice.
My story started in government housing on the South Side of Johannesburg. It was an impoverished neighbourhood, filled with hoodlums, and bullies. The schools in the area were much of the same. My home was a war zone, with no Father and an alcoholic abusive Mother to contend with. When I was kicked out of the house at 17, and found myself sleeping on a bench in the park I had escaped to as a kid, all seemed lost. I wasn’t popular at school, neither with the boys my age who I could call my friends, nor the girls who seemed to never acknowledge my existence.
While I made up my mind that night on the park bench to fight rather than end my life, a rage overcame me that propelled me into a world of overt aggressiveness, a really bad attitude, and a zero tolerance for anyone stepping on my toes. I fought like a mad man, both on the streets, outside the doors of nightclubs as the head bouncer, and in my gym. There wasn’t a week that went by that I wasn’t kicking someones ass. As sad as I am to admit it now, it built my notoriety. People took note. The bully types from my childhood either avoided me, or bowed their heads in my presence. Big names in the martial arts world at the time, recognised me. But I was to busy being pissed off at the world to even take notice of it.
Speed Isn’t Needed To Change a Story
I started off with a story in my life that seemed I was destined to be the gum on the shoes of those more powerful. I then turned that story around, re-wrote it, and became the person who commanded respect from even the toughest bad ass on the streets of Johannesburg. And then, at the height of my fame, things started falling apart. Not on the outside, but rather an existential crisis inside. For years, in actual fact a decade, I struggled with my role. I kept it quite. I plodded along. I dutifully filled my role as the bad ass fighter. People flocked to me and wanted to teach my method.
But as time went on, the inner turmoil I was feeling grew louder. People knew there was something wrong. I no longer wanted to teach people how to eliminate people who got in their way on the street or in the ring. It no longer made sense. There were days I absolutely loathed what I did, whilst other days I simply convinced myself that I had to keep going to pay my bills. For years I struggled to find some kind of balance, both in myself, and within the experience of my martial arts. I won some days, but a lot of days I lost the balance.
Stories Emerge From The Courage to Listen
Three years ago it dawned on me why I wasn’t getting it right. Even though my entire inner philosophy had changed in respect to what I did for a living, I was still afraid to put it fully out there for everyone to see, because I was still afraid of what others in my industry would say. It did feel that the world of modern martial arts was going in a completely opposite direction than I was (I should have been teaching in the 60’s it seemed). The direction everyone was going in the modern martial arts world, focused on hyper-competitiveness, and extreme perverted expressions of reality fighting — this was the direction I once lived, every moment of every day — but I couldn’t anymore. Not for money, not for fame, and not just because I was skilled enough to do it.
I realised then that I had always been different. Ever since a young boy I never wanted to compete with anyone. I never supported a sports team ( I still don’t). The whole tribalisation around sports confused me. I never cared if someone was better than me at anything, and I never idealised anyone. I am happy to be alone, and I find socialising draining. I have always been self motivated, with a desire to learn from other people, but never to become them. While I have a passion for martial arts, I abhor physical violence. I was an anomaly among boys my age, and even today among men.
In the past few years though, even though it has rocked my outer world, I have decided that I need to follow what Joseph Campbell called, one’s bliss. I had been pretending for far to long to be something I wasn’t. Because of that, I made mistakes and did things I wish I hadn’t. I got caught up in all the trappings that comes with being perceived as a bad Motherfucker. But as I have been reminded throughout my life, a story can be re-imagined, and the ending can become what ever you like it to be. But it does take courage.
A Very Unusual Story, Most Won’t Get (But Maybe That’s the Point?)
I get that my current story, my life’s journey now, many in the modern martial arts world won’t understand. I believe that first and foremost martial arts training should equip a person to be able to defend himself and those he loves. Like it or not, there are bad people in the world, who won’t think twice in hurting you and those you love. But beyond that, I want my martial art experience to help me finally transcend the fight inside (I am so tired of fighting). I have won every outer fight I ever took on. I have fought more times than I care to remember, and won to many times for it to matter much. I have no desire anymore to match my physical skills against someone else, in a contest of Mano a Mano.
In fact the more I age, the more in touch I become with my masculinity (something I was completely confused about for most of my life), the less and less enticing fighting of any kind becomes. I simply don’t see how beating anyone really proves anything anymore. If you can beat me, or you think what I do, or teach is crap, honestly I don’t really care. The truth is, we are all so consumed with what I call the ‘negative now’ — fleeting moments of desire, accolades, of chasing the limelight — that we don’t even realise we are focusing on shit in our life, that in the end, when we rock on of this planet will be meaningless. Seriously, if there is a God, I simply don’t think he is really going to care about how and who I was able to beat with my fists.
My role as a coach now has definitely changed over the past few years. I coach my students firstly how to defend themselves, but secondly how to take on the martial arts of everyday life more skilfully. I do this, not because I am some kind of Guru (man I am just as messed up as most people are). I am no better than anyone else. Rather I coach this way because this is who I was always meant to be, but was simply to afraid to write that story.
I know too, unless I help other young men who are struggling with the same kind of bullshit I grew up with — the need to be seen as a man of steel, comparing oneself to other men, and the whole survival of the fittest nonsense (now there’s a lie of a story) — they too will likely mess up like I did. Not withstanding, helping my students is my own therapy. There is always the potential that I may unravel the story I am now writing, but by reminding myself through teaching others, that I am here on the mat to end the war inside through the martial experience, I keep my shit together.