Timing of interest in martial arts: the year of the Dursleys

I’ve mentioned a few times in recent months that I’ve grown interested in martial arts in the last little while.

I’ve been trying to figure out where this interest comes from. As far as I can remember, the curiosity first began to spring up sometime around the birth of my second child, my daughter. So I’ve wondered to myself if there might be some previously-slumbering biological instinct that was activated by that event; protective dad and newborn daughter?

That could be it. But just today another possibility surfaced in my mind.

I was doing some reading about right-wing extremism during the anti-Covid measures. Right-wing extremism is an interest of mine; I think there’s evidence that it has the possibility of becoming a much bigger problem than many of us seem to assume, though if my guess turns out to be mistaken I’ll be overjoyed to eat crow.

It was while reading about these topics that I realized that the other big event coinciding with my daughter’s birth was the unfolding of the more unhinged pro-virus movements. (I use “pro-virus” as shorthand for anti-mask, anti-vax, anti-distancing, etc.)

I’ve read a lot of fiction in my life, and one thing that always annoys me is when an author tries to describe an obviously and exaggeratedly stupid character or class of characters. Think of Rowling writing the Dursleys. Somehow, an intelligent writer giving voice to a stupid character generally feels unbelievable, unconvincing, and arrogant. Besides, allowing for some variation in IQ and education, are there really people so abysmally thick? It beggars belief. And yet, 2021-2022 was the year of the loud, proud Dursleys, shamelessly out in force. (I hope it goes without saying that I’m speaking less of the people who disliked being told to wear masks and get vaccinated, than of those who were abusive toward law-abiding and civically-minded citizens, or who would hold forth about the need for elected politicians to be lynched.)

That year was an awakening for me. It had been implausible to me to think that Dursleys of this sort could exist in the modern world in any numbers. I misjudged. What might happen, then, the next time that we enter a moment of social upheaval like the Covid years, whenever that might be? I now feel much less sure that I know the answer.

Perhaps that goes some length to explaining the desire that slowly arose in me after that time, to learn something about how to defend oneself.

Dreaming for sleep

I have trouble getting a good night’s sleep. I’ve tried everything, and nothing seems to work.

Many times I think I’ve found the answer to the problem and then I decide a few weeks or months later that it wasn’t the silver bullet I first thought.

Maybe this will be another one of those cases, because just recently I’ve accidentally discovered something that seems to be really helping me get back to sleep in the night when I wake up.

Normally that’s my problem. I wake up in the middle of the night for one reason or another (or for no good reason at all) and then I can’t fall back to sleep. It’s the most frustrating experience to lie there for hours, trying to fall back to sleep.

I also never ever remember my dreams. And I now have reason to wonder if the two things are related.

My mother has never had difficulty sleeping, and she has always said that when she wakes up in the night, she thinks of the dream she was having and starts redreaming it and has no trouble getting back to sleep.

A few days ago I decided I wanted to try remembering my dreams and writing them down. It was a light-hearted thing – intended as part of a gag that isn’t worth detailing here. It was in no way meant to improve my sleep.

But it did. When I woke up in early hours of morning that night, I tried to remember the dream I’d been having, rather than ignoring it and forgetting it and turning my attention to the waking world as I normally would. And the amazing thing: I fell back asleep. Over the last few days since then, I’ve been awakened many times in the night, and each time I’ve focused on remembering the dream I was just in the middle of, and each time I’ve fallen back to sleep, and each morning I’ve woken from one of the best sleeps I’ve had in months.

I’m not claiming this is fool proof, or that it will continue working just as well in the coming days and weeks and months. But it’s promising enough that I want to keep experimenting with it. I’m writing it up like this mainly as a reminder to myself, though if it ends up helping anyone else in the process, so much the better.

Slowly compounding language study

I’ve noticed just recently that some of the languages I’ve been studying are getting incrementally easier for me.

It’s hard for my to characterize exactly what’s changed. The effect of the changes, which caught my attention, is that I’m often able to read longer portions than I previously was. Some context: I translate a bit of a couple languages every day (for instance it might be some Greek and then some German or Latin), and my rule for myself is that when I get tired or frustrated I’m finished with that language for the day. Sometimes it’s not much; if I’m looking up every second word and trying to puzzle out the coherence of the sentence structure, I might get through just a clause or two, ten or fifteen words perhaps, and have to stop there. Still, a day or two later I’ll definitely be right back at it, picking up where I left off, trying to see how much further I can get.

What has shifted, then, is that the average number of words I’m able to get through in a session is increasing. That means the task has gotten easier, which probably means I’m getting better at something. I can’t say with certainty what that is. Is my vocabulary getting better? Is my feel for the grammar improving? Am I getting better at keeping the meaning in mind rather than getting lost in the formal linguistic details? I couldn’t say what it is that’s making the experience easier.

But it’s exciting. I feel like a couple years of diligent hard work is finally starting to sprout into some small bit of living growth. The hours are paying off. I always knew they should, but of course there was also a part of me that had difficulty believing that they would, until the evidence really started showing up.

Not that there’s an abundance of evidence thus far. It’s not a lot to latch onto. But what makes me most excited about it is the thought that this could signal the beginning of a more rapid phase of growth.

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Probably. But here’s my thinking: the more I’m able to practice, the more quickly I’ll get better, and the better I get, the more practice I’ll be able to handle. No doubt that cycle won’t continue indefinitely, but at this point there’s lots of room for improvement still, and the more I can expand into that potentiality, the more quickly I will find myself progressing toward the sort of proficiency I dream of.

I dream of the day when my ability overtakes my available time — the day when I’ll be translating a passage of Greek and then after several minutes make myself stop, not because I’ve run out of steam, but because I’ve run out of time and need to move on to other things. On that day, I won’t be as fresh as a daisy while I cross Greek off my daily checklist, might be all but spent. Being able to read effortlessly like I do in English will be a ways further off still. But at that point, for the first time ever, it will be my available time that constrains my progress rather than my ability to read, and that will be a nice change.

Philosophy for the beginnings

I think the most weighty defence of the study of philosophy is one that I don’t hear very often. It’s a bold defence; perhaps too bold for many of us.

Ask any field of knowledge, “Why? Why do we believe that?” long and persistently enough and eventually they’ll all pass the buck. There are no sciences which contain within themselves their own complete justification, much as the odd scientist might feel otherwise.

And in this particular game, all roads lead eventually to philosophy. That’s just the nature of the topography. It’s the nature of how philosophy and other knowledges relate to one another.

This is not to deny that there are some philosophers who will attempt to bass the buck back eventually, announcing that it is physicists, or biologists, or psychologists, or literary theorists, etc, who have the truly original knowledge. Even in this case, however, it is the philosopher who is taken to have the expertise to be able to pronounce authoritatively about where our knowledge really comes from. This is just the internal logic of the whole system; philosophy exists, in one sense, in order for others to be able to pass the eventual buck.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time trying to remember what makes philosophy so attractive and compelling to me. It surprises me that it’s taken so long for me to arrive at this formulation; that’s not to say this is the final or highest reason to look to philosophy, only that I would have expected it to be a more obvious one, something that would suggest itself to me sooner.

One thing that’s compelling about this particular formulation is how it integrates how philosophy (at least implicitly) sees itself and how non-philosophers (at least implicitly) see philosophy. It’s good to start from an agreeable premise, even if that turns out not to be really what is first by nature.

I suspect that part of the reason why this approach didn’t come to mind for me is because of how the lines connecting philosophy to other fields have grown much weaker. You can’t rely on a given student of philosophy to be generally very knowledgeable about other fields (myself least of all, sadly). Philosophy is largely able to happen in isolation from developments in other realms of learning, and vice versa. They do intersect occasionally and in unpredictable ways, but it seems to me that without some greater integration than we really seem to have for now, this portrayal of philosophy, valid as it surely is, feels more like a sort of unrealized ideal.

More on arts martial

A month or two back I had a couple posts about martial arts. It’s something I’ve been giving a lot of thought since the beginning of the year.

I’m still not entirely sure why. There is something social about my attraction to it, not only in the sense of having a community to feel close to and to make friends within (though that is an attractive thing), but in the sense that, as I’ve said here in the past, my own utopian vision of a political community, when I examine it, has a martial aspect. I like the idea of a good community as one that plays games which are somehow closely relevant to fighting.

One thing I’ve heard as I’ve researched over the past several months, and I can believe this, is that there’s a kind of pleasure or giddiness in combat sports that is not present in the same way in other sports. I’ve heard the suggestion that we’re evolutionarily wired in some way to enjoy play fighting. So maybe that’s part of it.

And I think part of it does come from a desire to be able to defend myself and my family. I can’t say for sure if it’s not a coincidence that my interest in all this has appeared as my family is growing, but I would certainly be comforted in the knowledge that I would have a better chance of protecting myself and my family if I ever needed to. We are fortunate to live in a time when our states guarantee a generally safe and nonviolent existence for their citizens, but of course the state isn’t omniscient or omnipotent, so there are gaps where violence can be suddenly very real and truly devastating.

Initially I was attracted to the idea of some more esoteric martial art. I’m not sure why. I had a friend who was really enthusiastic about aikido several years ago, so that was one of my first thoughts. As I did some research, Krav Maga also sounded pretty cool. I continued reading and thinking, though, and have come to the conclusion that the best idea is to go with the options that have been most successful in the pressure testing of mixed martial art competitions: a striking art like boxing, Muay Thai, kick boxing, or something of the sort; and a grappling art like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or wrestling. One of each.

I’m hoping to begin learning in person as soon as possible, but my family’s financial situation and schedule have meant that I haven’t been able to start right away. But that’s worked out pretty well for me, I think. I’ve been seeking in my spare time to master the concepts of how to be good at striking and grappling arts, on the one hand, and also how to train in them most effectively.

One approach to training that has really appealed to me as I’ve read around is “constraint-led,” games-based training. It seems like it’s on the rise, but perhaps not yet very widespread. I won’t expect to find a place locally that is doing this, and wherever I do begin training I’ll respect their approach and learn as well as I can from it. But I think I’ll try to shape my side of the pedagogical relationship as much as I can with the ecological training perspective, and over time as I (presumably) will have a bit more autonomy over how I’m spending my training time, I hope to try out some of these different ideas that I’ve been spending so much time with lately.

Two ways of relating to progressivism

I’ve experienced in myself, and seen in others, two main ways of relating to progressivism for those of us who are not thoroughgoing progressivists. Both feel natural and understandable, but one of the two seems far more desirable than the other.

The first approach (and indeed it is often first chronologically, when there’s a chronological development in a person’s mature thought) is sheer rejection. More specifically, it is rejection that is based on disagreement or doubt about the reasoning that produces a given progressive conclusion. “Well, I don’t agree with your premises, so I can’t go along with your conclusion.” I think that, as a starting place, this can be a sign of a healthy intellectual disposition (think of the well-being gap between conservatives and liberals), but it is based on a serious error, and getting stuck at this stage seems to me likewise a sign of a problem. More on that in a moment.

The other option is to search for possible overlaps with a progressive doctrine that can be reached from a different starting point. Something closer to, “While I don’t agree with you that absolute indiscriminate compassion for all human or conscious or living beings is the fundamental and unquestionable moral principle, nevertheless I still agree with a lot of your conclusions, at least up to a point.”

I’m thinking less here of exoteric rhetorical posture than of interior ideological disposition. The character of the moment and of a particular audience will determine the rhetorical possibilities; some situations might well call for unyielding or divisive stances (though in general I’m dispositionally disinclined to that sort of thing, being honest). That’s fine as far as it goes, but if that’s also what’s happening beneath the surface, in the heart, then I think it’s unhealthy and likely to lead to accepting falsehoods and error.

The former is based on a common logical error. “You believe Y because of X. But X is not true, and so Y is likewise false.” If X then Y; not-X, therefore not-Y. Sheer fallacy. It’s amazing how many people who think of themselves as smart fall prey to such errors—and certainly the ideological Right is not unique in this sort of mistake.

There are ways of trying to make it less fallacious, of course. “Well, I don’t believe things without proof, and their proof has obviously failed, so why should I believe it? That’s not a fallacy.” Or perhaps, “If we believe or assume that Y is true, it will have big consequences in the real world, including many very bad consequences, so if there’s no good reason to accept it then we have an obligation to treat it as definitively untrue, until we learn otherwise.”

These are valid as far as they go, but I still have some big reservations. For one thing, we shouldn’t assume we know what all the consequences will be and base our decisions on this supposed foreknowledge; even a false opinion can lead to good outcomes, especially given that the old opinion it’s replacing is probably equally false and harmful though in different ways. Further on this same note: for someone to say that one of the bad consequences of an opinion is that it will divide society and could lead to violence is entirely illegitimate, if this same someone is actively seeking to stir up and shape the very passions that would lead to violent divisiveness.

But most importantly of all, to me, it seems that we have an intellectual obligation to ourselves to make at least a cursory attempt at finding a better argument than the one that failed to convince us. Anything else is sheer intellectual laziness and self-sabotage. I’m not saying we need to go to the ends of the earth seeking to prove the other side’s argument, or read all the relevant academic literature we can get our hands on (though until we’ve done so, it surely wouldn’t hurt to hang onto some measure of humility and uncertainty). But at the very least we should make a genuine effort at bridging the gap from what we already believe and accept to what the other person is proposing to us. Usually it takes negligible effort to get most of the way there. Frequently we won’t be able to get to absolute agreement, but if we can get ninety or ninety-nine percent of the way to agreement without trying almost at all, and in the process learn something new and valuable from the other person that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen, then there is every reason to give it a shot as often as we can.

Goodness and Intellect

A person doesn’t need to be smart to be good.

There are many saints who had no notable intellectual endowments.

But goodness and intelligence also are not incompatible. Perhaps that seems too obvious to say, or perhaps indeed to some it might seem obviously wrong.

If a person strives to be good, and has the capacity for intellectual excellence, then developing that intellectual capacity is to some degree going to be a part of the journey toward virtue.

That’s not to say everyone who is able to become a university professor ought to do so — by no means. I’m also not saying that we have an inborn duty to develop our intellectual powers as far as we can; if such a duty exists, there are many other duties that are more important demanding our attention first.

Still, our intellectual capacity is part of who we are, and it cannot be banished forever. If it is not a part of our movement toward virtue, then it will probably be an anchor slowing us down, or even an enemy working against us. It is a gift, one among many, to be enjoyed and put to good use.

I have a suspicion that intellect is limited by lack of virtue, but I haven’t fully thought through yet the best way to express how I’d argue for that conclusion.

Humility for wisdom

My personal conviction is that the person who wants to grow wiser, to learn, to make progress in understanding, should prioritize first and always a goal of being more humble.

The more humble we can be, the fewer will be the hindrances to our learning.

Most obviously, we won’t learn as much from someone that we assume knows less than we do, and we won’t even try to learn about something if we assume we are already great at it.

As well, being humble seems to bring with it an openness to reality. Humility travels with amazement. If I’m not constantly believing or fighting to believe that I’m the summit of all things, then I’m able to see more dispassionately the other amazing things and thoughts and people I encounter.

Humility is often a challenge to cultivate. I don’t know what it is in the human heart that seems to cling to illusions about ourselves even when it harms us. But we really do make monumental efforts to deceive ourselves and those around us.

Being humble isn’t in itself a way to impress people. If you’re content to let people believe unflattering things about you, even things that aren’t fully true, because you have less of a stake in convincing the world how great you are, then many people will doubtless end up thinking less of you.

What I’m absolutely convinced of, though, is that in the long run, the humble person is the one who can really grow and improve, in ways that the proud cannot even conceive of as possible. The proud may have an illusive, transitory impressiveness, but it is the humble who may someday be truly great.