Today, a single stripe was added to my heretofore blank slate of a white belt in Brazilian Jiujitsu. And I spontaneously, without thinking, said to my instructor, “Thank you, sir” after he added that stripe to my belt. I was taken aback by my own words. How I had stressed myself out over not being able to call him “sir” because I have never learned to say it respectfully, and how suddenly, it had just happened.
You see, I can’t recall, before now, having ever called someone “sir” or any similar honorific without some touch of sarcasm. In my early years, I experienced “sir” and “ma’am” as respect given without being earned. The homeschooled children who were even more sheltered than I, the ones who all dressed alike in clothes their mom made for them, the ones who seemed to be hiding their personalities deep inside and projecting only what the adults around them wanted to see, they referred to every adult as “sir” or “ma’am.” It seemed disingenuous to me, and it didn’t help that my parents (briefly) tried to get me to do the same. “Sir” was given grudgingly in my childhood, and used as a weapon later on to project an ass-kissing demanded by bad authority figures while backhandedly insulting them. But today the word sprang to my lips, imbued with real respect. This was the full actuality of what all those empty shells of words were supposed to mean. The word did not taste bitter to me, my hackles did not rise against this word that had been so abused in my past. I used it as it was meant to be used and anyone who has had struggles with accepting authority in the past will understand just how big of a breakthrough that is.
I began to reflect, then, if I had learned real respect for someone in a position of leadership and authority, and had learned to express it in a way that had been so tainted in my past, how else has jiujitsu changed my life so far?
Jiujitsu has challenged me like I’ve rarely been challenged before. Athleticism was simply never on my radar up until now. I assumed I was bad at it. And I almost never stick with things that I’m not good at. Even in college, I took on challenging classes only because I was good at academics and knew I could handle the pressure. But jiujitsu was completely foreign to my lifestyle. It was a huge risk for me to even consider it, because what if I just failed spectacularly? And it’s one of those things that takes a very, very long time to master. So every time I step on the mat, I realize two things: one, I am learning and improving, and two, there’s always going to be much more to learn. Committing to something that I’m not naturally good at is already beginning to improve my patience and teach me humility.
Part of what makes the journey worthwhile is the group of people I train with. A whole team of people who are helping me become better (and I hope I can be of some help to them too). Sometimes they teach me by submitting me (I’m learning to keep my elbows in now), and sometimes they teach me by telling me how to escape or how to submit them. A support network is invaluable. I only went to jiujitsu for the first time because one of my friends was also somewhat on the fence about it. For the first couple of months we talked each other into going regularly. I was able to earn my first stripe because a fellow student patiently worked with me on the fundamental self-defense techniques I needed to know. It is their praise and feedback which gives me direction on the details I need to focus on, and their blue and purple belts that give me something manageable to aspire to.
I am learning trust, which has always been very hard for me (for plenty of good reasons). Trust is necessary on the mat. And it takes a certain measure of character to do jiujitsu well. When a person has me in a position, over and over, where they could do serious physical damage, and they let go when I tap out, that builds trust very quickly. When someone who is much better than me allows me to submit them, then thanks me for rolling with them and tells me I did well, that builds trust. When people choose to drill with me or help me train even though they’ve been doing this for years and I’ve only been doing it a few months, that builds trust. In life, I’ve become used to being the odd one out, the excluded one, the one who questions whether she really belongs, the one who has to look out for herself because nobody else will. But from my very first class, I have never once felt that way at jiujitsu.
As I mentioned before, I’ve had a lot of experience with phony leadership and shitty authority figures. When my pastor was writing my recommendation letter for college (a Christian college apparently requires that), he asked me, “Do you have a problem with authority?” And I, lying through my teeth, said, “No not at all.” Since then, I’ve met a few professors and many people at my current job who are truly good leaders, but jiujitsu has really shown me good leadership and earned authority up close. For the first time I can use the word “leader” without thinking of it as an empty word used in my college’s ridiculous marketing campaigns. The black belt who is the head instructor for our school earned my respect immediately. He wrangled me and an entire class of white belts as we struggled to learn very basic techniques, teaching patiently, expecting a high standard and giving us the tools to reach it. I’ve watched blue belts and purple belts teach classes when our head instructor is out of town, stepping into the role with grace and excellence. Even in the one-on-one interactions with other students of higher ranks, I see their leadership skills come into play. My jiujitsu school is full of people who, having learned from a true leader, are naturally displaying their own leadership talents. Every student I’ve interacted with is eager to help others learn without any ulterior motive or any hint of wanting to use a role of authority for personal gain. This tone of gracious, helpful leadership and humble authority is set by our head instructor’s example and it is the best atmosphere for learning I could possibly imagine. I want to be a part of that culture of good leadership. It’s not enough to train for oneself, I need to proactively give whatever help I can to my teammates.
Even as I’m learning all of these deeper lessons, I’m also overcoming my physical hang-ups. I never used to want to exercise until it hurt. I was always afraid of ever being physically harmed in any way. Pushing myself to any physical limit of any kind was simply out of the question. And getting up in someone’s personal space could only seem feasible after a few beers. But jiujitsu changed all of that, more quickly than I ever imagined. I have grappled until I was halfway between crying and wanting to throw up, and gone back for more. I found one day that I utterly failed at executing a successful front roll so I went home and rolled back and forth across my living room until I was almost too dizzy to stand. I am no longer terrified of physical attack because I know I can survive. I am dotted with bruises all the time now and don’t even care. I’ve learned that I can fight for some length of time and come out without any significant harm. And when I’m rolling, there’s no social awkwardness, there’s only two fighting bodies made up parts that can be used for attack or defense. For someone who used to freak the fuck out at plastic lightsaber duels, and who winced watching her brother and sister spar when they were taking Tae Kwon Do, I’ve come a remarkably long way in a short time.
As I sit here and reflect, it’s fascinating how jiujitsu is helping me sort out many of the difficulties I have in life. It is that magical safe space, the likes of which are few and far between. I got on the mat for the first time back in December thinking I would get a little fitter and learn some cool fighting techniques, but jiujitsu is far more than just that. If I work with the opportunities it hands me, I will become a better person. I will be molded into the sort of person who can give something back. And all while practicing a martial art that I have come to love. Jiujitsu is a lifelong journey, on which I’ve only just taken the first couple of steps. I look forward to many more years of grappling, community, and growth.