by GM Jeff Helaney

There are cycles to everything. There is always a beginning, middle, and an end. Sometimes the cycles repeat and sometimes … sometimes they just end. This is a truth that cannot be altered or changed. When we look at life from this perspective, then it takes on a whole new flavor. The expectations are clearer and so is the destination.

Although everyone’s journey through the martial arts (like life) is different they always have the same components. We begin, we learn, and at some point we stop. I have had three encounters over the last few weeks that have caused me to reflect, to smile, and to feel sad. Each of them surrounded the truth of this never ending conversation.

The first encounter was with a martial arts student that caused me to reflect. He is a funny and intelligent young man, but obviously frustrated with his progression through a martial arts. Like most people his age time moves slowly, but ambition moves quickly. To feel successful he looks to external reinforcement of his internal progress. A new belt is an affirmation of his worth as a martial artist. He doesn’t realize that belts are arbitrary measurements at best. Each school, association, and instructor has different expectations about what is required for rank. The expectations he knows now are different than what he has known in the past. Now he must decide to either stay where he is at and move more slowly, to find someone who will promote him as quickly as he wants, or to quit martial arts altogether.

His next steps will be telling. It is a weighty decision that will affect his journey through the martial arts and in a sense the way he lives his entire life. While I hope that he makes the right choice for him, I can’t help but reflect on the number of times I have had to watch a similar story play out. It is a reminder that the cycle always finds a way to reach out to each of us. It is the way we choose to handle our set of circumstances is what sets us apart from each other.

The moment that made me smile came unexpectedly and caught me off guard. I had lunch with an old acquaintance. She and her husband brought their grandchildren with them. Both are martial artists. He no longer actively practices due to physical injuries, but she still teaches out her own school. Her grandchildren are two of her students. We were discussing her requirements for her next black belt and what would be required of her at her testing. The conversation meandered and went off track several times as conversations often do.

It was during these often trivial excursions that I began to grin and smile to myself. During these off track moments that I realized how her journey has been a different one. How it was being renewed by the participation of her grandchildren and her other students in an art she loves. I was fascinated by how much she has given back to her art and how she has deliberately chosen the hard road as a teacher often taking students who could not pay or who were handicapped. It became a sharp contrast to what I feared would be a short excursion for the young man I mentioned earlier.

The last encounter came in the form of an Email last week. It was an “I regret to inform you that …” letter. A martial artist that I had known for many years (although not well) had died. He was an extremely dynamic individual that had a life time of accomplishments few martial artists will ever match. He was a force that often seemed larger than life. He could be gruff, but still seemed interested in everyone he encountered. I knew several of this man’s students better than I knew him and I immediately felt sad for their loss. Their teacher, friend, and mentor had ended journey in this world. I sent quick note to the family expressing my condolences but I did not expect to hear anything back.

Earlier today I received a letter from one of his students. It wasn’t even one that I knew. It told a story about how this teacher (knowing that he would not live forever) had began planning for his death a few years ago. It encouraged all of his students to honor his memory by continuing to learn and to teach what they had been taught. It was a strong message that life goes on and though one cycle might end there are always others that go on.

This is the never ending conversation. Although martial artists (like the rest of humanity) are forever caught between a begining and an end … those who are truly committed to something and give of themselves add to the conversation that always continues. What we do and how we do it goes on after our journey here ends.

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