by Joe Kovacs
Years ago I nearly got into a couple bar fights. The worst one was with a drunken guy whose toxic breath was almost terrible enough to knock me out. If that didn’t do the trick, I suppose he might have tried the beer bottle he was aggressively brandishing in front of my face. Fortunately, we both backed down at the last second, but I walked away from the situation asking myself two questions.
If a fight started, what would I do? I didn’t know the answer to that question.
More importantly, if a fight started, what could I do? I knew the answer to that one: not much.
At 30 years old, I had already done a lot of things. I had gotten an education, lived and worked overseas, and written a book. And I was also pretty focused on my future—I was an aspiring novelist who worked a day-time job in marketing. But I also knew there were parts of my personality I’d neglected to develop over the years. Most obviously, I couldn’t defend myself very well. This had always been a concern, but even more so after September 11. I used to work in the World Trade Center!!! I also struggled in my relations with people. I was frequently doubtful, lacked confidence in myself and validated my worth through the opinions of others.
Martial arts had always been something I was interested in from a distance—two friends from New York were martial artists, one was a black belt in tae kwon do. At about the same time, my sister got engaged to a guy who was also a black belt in tae kwon do. The writing was on the wall.
When I began considering which martial art to pursue, my friends explained that no type is superior to another. Bruce Lee once said: “The different forms of martial arts are like petals from the same flower.” Several people recommended aikido, a circular, defensive form, which concentrates less on applying force to an opponent and more on redirecting his energy away from your body. His own attack ends up as is his undoing. Aikido is a more compassionate martial art, someone said, and my friends said it was quite suitable for my creative, artistic personality. But I was honest with myself about wanting more than an art that would only help me defend myself. I also wanted to become a more assertive person in general. For this reason, I was drawn to the linear, offensive kicking and punching techniques of tae kwon do. And so, to the surprise of many, after taking a free introductory class at Yong Studios, I signed up.
But tae kwon do is so physically demanding. It’s hard work…and I was 30 years old. An old man practically! Wasn’t it too late to start a training program like this?
I’ve always believed it’s never too late to learn something new. If you’re not busy developing yourself, you’re busy fading away. I wasn’t interested in planting myself in front of the boob tube with a bag of Doritos. I didn’t want to spend my evenings bar-hopping. I didn’t want to buy a bigger and better stereo than my neighbor. And I didn’t want to invest in the latest get-rich-quick scheme. A Buddhist proverb says: “The past doesn’t matter.” Another proverb—I can’t remember if it’s from Buddha or Hollywood—says “It’s never too late to be the person you were meant to be.”
These were comforting words.
And so in August 2002, despite my advanced age and creaky bones, I accepted my white belt as a symbol of purity, innocence and ignorance. Over the next year and a half, I worked hard…harder, perhaps, than at any other time in my life. In this sense, I was reborn. For my troubles I’ve since earned several cracked ribs as a white belt, a bloodied nose from my instructor as a green belt, and now, at blue belt, I’m nursing a torn hamstring. Who knows what else will happen before I get to black.
Maybe I’m sick in the head, but I can’t wait to find out!
Martial arts isn’t easy, but no one will ever tell you it is, unless they’re lying. And since you begin at white belt, with a long ranking system of belts ahead of you, you know right off the bat the journey will be long and challenging. There is no end to pain. But it’s worth it. Mr. Kim’s aunt said once that if there’s an easy way or a difficult way to do something, choose the difficult way because you will gain more from it. My growth has come with a price but when I see new white belts in the studio now, I realize how far I’ve come since I started. (Of course when I see the black belts, I also realize how far I still have to go.)
Last winter, I was walking home late at night after a workout at the studio. Foolishly I was talking on my cell phone and wasn’t paying attention to my surroundings. Three men began to pass me and, as they did, one of them suddenly snatched my bag away. Instantly, without thinking about it, I grabbed my bag back with one hand, while my other hand curled around my phone into a fist. I was ready to break my phone in a fight, rather than lose my bag because I was too afraid to get it back. In the brief standoff, my eyes passed over each man’s face. I was outnumbered and I had no idea whether they had weapons. My neighborhood in Washington, DC is not always the safest place.
I took a step past them, frightened but also aware of what I would do if the men came after me. Fortunately, they decided to walk on, and I hurried to get away from them as quickly as possible.
Not long after that incident, I overheard one of the black belts at Yong Studios speaking about how criminals “profile” victims before perpetuating a crime. In other words, criminals tend to seek out those who appear timid, frightened, weak and defenseless. I remembered the three men standing around me in the middle of the street, and how I’d confidently recovered my bag, how I’d been frightened but prepared to fight even though I might get hurt, and most of all how, in the end, the three men decided not to push the issue and left me alone.
This story is not about how impressive I was. It’s about how impressive training can be if you begin it, prepared to work hard and prepared to reap all the benefits martial arts has to offer. It takes patience, perseverance, hard work, sweat, a lot of humility and even more frustration—especially if you’re an old man like me and all the bratty kids like Miguel and Raymar are running and leaping around in the prime of their youth. You may get hurt and, when you start sparring, you will certainly get humiliated.
But, like I said, the benefits are worth it, and I’ve never once regretted my decision to take martial arts. The problems I struggled with before I began training are no longer there. They belong in the past, and you remember what Buddha said about the past! But my perspective on tae kwon has also changed over the last year and a half. Originally I joined to learn to fight effectively, plain and simple. But on the night I faced three opponents on a city street, my self-confidence came out before my fists and, in the end, perhaps the men sensed I was ready to stand my ground and decided to keep walking. Tae kwon do has not only taught me how to fight effectively…but how to stop a fight before it happens—effectively.
That’s not something I would have understood back in 2002. But it makes a lot more sense now at blue belt and I suppose the learning, along with the training, will go on and on from here, to black belt and beyond.