history lead us or bind us?
article is written in general with a loosely logical flow. Had I
the expertise I would have written it otherwise, instead I have
only opted to present some thoughts on a difficult subject and in
so doing I am only thinking out loud. I mean no disrespect to anyone
involved with Martial Arts or Religion and I advocate no particular
way of thinking or living over another.
In thinking about why I train in Martial Arts I seem to be led naturally
to thinking about who I am and what I need. The reader can be forgiven
a sigh of despondency regarding probably the oldest conundrum in
human thought. But doesn't the idea of identity arise somewhere
along the line when we start thinking of what we are doing from
day to day? I cannot answer that question here if I can answer it
to my own satisfaction at all. The reason for presenting it is to
do with concepts of identity and their relation to history and tradition.
Having started by asking 'Can history lead us or bind us?' I have
used the term 'history' as if it has a universally recognisable
meaning. It hasn't but many of us continue to use it as if it has,
along with other abstract or subjective ideas like progress, love,
spirit and God. I deliberately use these other terms as examples
because for some reason they are inextricably linked with the idea
of history and history's sub-heading tradition. Indeed the 'onward'
march of 'history' and 'progress' appears for some, to have a guiding
'spirit'. 'Love' for that 'spirit' (whatever it might be) often
results in being duty bound to traditions conceived within the pages
of time and hidden from our mortal gaze. Poetic isn't it? 'History'
like poetry relies on our ability to accept blank spots, grey areas
and the retardation of time as if there wasn't such a thing! Perhaps
there isn't. We are however, assured of the idea of history as important
and vital; after all hasn't it been around such a long time?
What meaning and authority can history have, if any, is the question
that I have been clumsily alluding to? History by definition is
all the things that have preceded this moment and all the things
that have preceded this moment constitute too much for anyone to
know or make sense of. So historians and laymen alike select events,
facts, names and places, giving them specific associations and meanings.
'History' is not a science but a scheme of subjective values projected
through time. With time values change and often what history tells
us changes. Any serious historian may argue differently. That is
understandable but consider the fact that we now realise our predecessors
spoke from a decidedly local perspective. As I am doing now no doubt.
is of course a complicated issue for we must also admit that much
of the world has its intellectual roots in one or other form of
monotheism, or some absolute system that tells us about ourselves
and the world itself. Probably for the readers of this article the
moral and ethical boundaries of the Judeo-Christian and Muslim traditions
alongside Greek and Latin philosophy dominate our thinking and our
way of looking at things. Over the last three and half centuries
imperialism and colonisation have exposed Europeans to different
thought and culture.
Eastern concepts such as The Wheel of Life and Reincarnation have
provided a valuable form of expression for many who were disillusioned
with more 'traditional' thinking. However, the point is that much
of the 'West' (itself a social and political concept that I didn't
think of but which forms a framework for some of my thinking) continues
to think in terms of linear time the divinity of the subject and
voracious self-determination. This is particularly true of the nominally
Protestant Anglo-Saxon world and its secular shadow: liberalism
and the free market economy. Individualism at all costs.
'Well' you ask, 'what has that to do with Martial Arts'?
I suppose that human beings do not interact with and are not formed
by history and theory, but by personal interaction: by their senses
and wills meeting objects around them at every moment of the day.
Within the human experience there is something greater than what
theoreticians', historians', nationalist leaders, governments' and
Gurus' etc try to tell us we are. I suggest that the ability to
give each other what we need is fundamental to being human. This
is idealistic. I am the first to admit it. In honesty I also need
to believe this is true. Identities are shaped by interaction and
can change throughout life. What people say about history is often
linked to racial or national identity or political-economic concepts.
These worldviews often chain us to a way of behaving and the way
we think about others. This may be beside the point but who can
say that such categorisations have not caused them to make sweeping
statements about things that they have no experience of?
'History' however is a product of relationships. Relationships are
not the result of 'history' playing upon us. At its most cynical
one might say that 'history' binds us to a way of thinking and behaving
that is unproductive and destructive. I think this is true in many
ways. However, I wish to be more positive and say that the richness
of history is due to the richness of human creativity and interaction.
Intrinsic to this premise is that relationships are immediate, dynamic
and independent from the categories and rivalries placed upon us
by the need to give meaning to the past. The traditions' of our
'Arts' may lead us a long way or they may not! Tradition-Martial
Art- is not part of the make up of the universe like carbon. Traditions'
and 'Arts' are made out of the particular needs of human beings
and if those needs or attitudes change should the 'Art' change with
it? That is quite personal and relates to the original question
I put to myself. 'Why do I train, what do I need'.
From my own perspective it is easier on my psyche if I think in
terms of guidelines instead of principles. There are some things
in my particular 'Art' that I know I cannot do. Does this mean that
I am a poor martial artist? Should I chastise myself for these imperfections?
The answer depends on my mentality toward life and my reasons for
training. 'Know Thyself' the old philosophers taught us. I think
I know enough about myself to say that I have motivation and perseverance.
There are times however, when I must admit and then accept my limitations.
In this way the pain of not being good enough and the feeling of
failure of not matching up to others-to the tradition- subsides.
Being able to adapt and vary behaviour when confronted with difficulty
is a part of human nature that needs exercising regularly.
club and a wise master can adapt training to get the best out of
a student. Does this mean that tradition is lost? I hope not, I
quite like some traditions. What I don't like is carrying history
on my shoulders like a sack of stones. So the question 'Can history
lead us or bind us?' is deliberately open ended. If I were to have
said 'DOES history lead us or bind us?' the answer, I think, could
have been narrowed to a straight yes or no. It is a fact however,
that many more people are abandoning adherence to received wisdom
and principles in favour of an analysis of utility and understandable
conceptualisation. This is particularly true of 'Western Christianity',
which I suggest, is usually where the changes in the rest of society
are felt last.
but predictably any changes in inherited principles and tradition
in any part of society or culture often results in a counter movement
voracious and 'fundamental' (this is a loaded term) in nature. Of
course not all change is good. Often a middle way (that pleases
none and offends everyone its detractors might say and typically
English to boot) can be found but is missed. Compromise is usually
seen as weakness but has its place. For compromise is a reining
in of the ego and this is not a bad thing in many respects. We in
the martial art fraternity must know this.
Stephen Betts Level 3 student and Assistant Instructor Croydon M.A.I.