The Value of Failure

The more I talk to my Sensei, the more I realise that my undue solipsism prevents me from seeing the value of Sensei as not just teachers in the strict sense, but very, very human and occasionally vulnerable.

I will always see my various Sensei as hardcore and untouchable, partly because they are that way sometimes, and partly because I’m proud to be their student. But what has helped me in my struggles with failure is to hear their stories about the tough times in their training journeys and how they got through it. Whether it was returning to the mat after a painful injury, or failing a grading or hitting a mental wall with a technique for months on end, it has been extraordinarily valuable to listen to their stories.

Anyone who has known me for longer than a few days know that I struggle with failure, mostly because I equate any failure with being a complete failure. There’s a switch in the back of my head that is triggered by any failure to flood me with shame and despair. Because I equate success with love, I assume that people will stop talking to me at parties should I fail at anything. It is a hysterical reaction, and one I’m working very hard on conquering, but it still affects me more than most situations. I hate being teased precisely because it seems like people are making fun of my previous failures and equating my worth with the mistakes I’ve made in the past.

(No, I’m 25 years old, why do you ask?)

So when it comes to my training, there will always be failure and struggle. In Fight Club, Tyler Durden tells the narrator that a moment of perfection is all we can hope for, and it is enough. And it will take hundreds of hours to do that one kata perfectly, or that one throw just right, and I can’t explain to anyone else that it feels like my blood is made out of light when the hundreds of little things come together to create a magnificent mosaic of movement and breath and strength. I have to remember that there will be struggle, and tears and failure, but I have to keep the whole picture in mind.

A week ago, I had one of the worst training sessions in my life, when I tried to work through the Aikido 3rd kyu syllabus. Now, I’ve missed this belt a few times (and I will again this year because I can’t afford the mat fees)  and even though I have been working on this syllabus for the last three years, it occassionally slips through my fingers and I can’t get the simplest little ikkyo right, or even my damned stepping. And then there’s the judgement from on-high about “you’re not focused enough and you don’t train hard enough wark wark wark”, which are fair comments in and of themselves. I would accept this wisdom if it were feasible enough to apply. I’m not going to choose between my arts, because I’ve done them both for 5 and a bit years and I love them both. And yes, I have a day time job, and I write and I try to squeeze in violin and I have a long-term relationship, and sometimes I’m still tired no matter how much bioplus I drink right from the bottle.

If I keep everything in perspective, including the above busy life, then maybe its not so bad that I’m not the Black Swan of South African martial arts. Maybe I need to shift my focus from being the best to doing my best, which aren’t always the same thing. And maybe I need to grow up and accept that this is a twenty-year journey and that’s the best part about it.

And then maybe chocolate will flow from the taps and money will be pooped by birds.

I digress, and there’s no need for facetiousness. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that I’m someone who has done well at everything else I’ve tried (that doesn’t involve hand-eye coordination) and here I am doing martial arts. I’m notorious for being uncoordinated, and I admit that I look like a flamingo on amphetamines sometimes. The major lesson here is that it is okay to fail sometimes. That no one will think less of me for it as long as I try again. One day, I’ll look back at myself and laugh at my neuroses on the mat. Until then, I just have to learn not to care so much. Easier said than done, but its still worth a try. It always is.

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