Sacred objects and piety

I have a theory; and no real proof for it.

I don’t think the most important human factor for a child’s future faith is hearing a parent talk about faith, or hearing a parent pray. That probably makes a difference, but I think it would be easy for a child to grow up and shrug that off.

I also don’t think it’s church attendance, though again, it no doubt makes a big difference. No doubt propagandistic sorts of intellectual arguments will be important for at least some people. I think peers of sincere faith is a much bigger factor than the others as well.

(Probably the final answer would be, “If you wanted to play it safe then you’d go for all of the above.”)

But something occurred to me the other day, and I’m having trouble doubting it. I wonder if one really big factor might be the act of insisting on a special kind of reverence toward certain objects more closely connected to liturgy or faith, objects that they can interact with under supervision.

I think that’s a really powerful way of handing on something that’s important in the life of faith.

But I can’t exactly say why. I can’t explicate it or defend it. It’s just something that seems undeniably true to me.

Conceptual approach to martial arts

I’ve been thinking and learning about martial arts for most of the past year. I’ve been practicing them a bit at a beginner level for just the last few months.

I don’t think you can really learn martial arts in a purely conceptual way. I do think you probably could really learn them in a minimally conceptual way, with lots of practice that slowly allows the concepts to arise naturally by a process of trial and error, though I think that would be a pretty frustrating way to do it.

But my guess is that front-loading the conceptual work in an approach that employs both sides is probably the most enjoyable and effective way to learn. That’s my sense. Take that for what it’s worth, coming as it does from someone who’s pretty inexperienced and inexpert in the matter. But that is what my experience seems to show so far.

The first conceptual step is to learn which kinds of martial art to focus on. There are a hundred different styles and lineages, each of which makes wondrous claims for itself and has a mountain of arguments and anecdotes for why its movements and training methods are the best there are. It’s exceedingly easy to be misled.

Having found a criterion for judging the different options and thus discovered which options to choose as a foundation, the next step is to begin learning about one or another of those martial arts. This is the time for learning the principles and goals of the martial art. (For me, this was a striking art, which seemed generally easier to grasp than the weirdness and complexity of a grappling art like wrestling or BJJ.)

Then it’s time to start learning about specific techniques, tactics, and strategies. This is a slow process, because so many things are interconnected that it will be necessary to go back and relearn what you’ve already studied multiple times as the relationships between the different parts become clearer. At some point, as the first art is coming to make some sense, it will be time to do the same thing with a second art (for me, this was a grappling art), going through the same slow process again.

Then, with these frameworks in place, for me it is much easier to go to practice and physically go through the motions of each movement that is taught. The different pieces aren’t isolated points with no meaning or connections (which is how martial arts felt to me as a youngster when I did them). Everything makes sense, and the internal logic of the movements are clear.

At that point, as the physical experience of the martial art becomes familiar, it is possible to go back and relearn the different levels of concepts one more time, with a new kind of understanding and insight. To me, this is a great way to learn martial arts. The physical learning is fun and fast this way, and the conceptual learning is comfortable and thorough. With a resource like YouTube available to us today, this seems like the clear way to go. So far it’s felt pretty good to me, at least.

Learning fighting live

I’m certainly no expert at fighting. I did a couple years of martial arts as a preteen and hated every minute of it. I’ve spent much of the past year learning about contemporary martial arts and fight sports, and the last few months doing some very basic, beginner classes.

Through the studying I’ve been doing, though, I’ve developed some thoughts about learning to fight. Maybe I’ll change those opinions with time and experience, but so far here’s my thinking.

I suspect the two most important parts of learning quickly and well (and enjoyably) are to practice “live,” and to practice safely. They are two sides of the same thing.

I hate hitting pads. I don’t care for running through combinations in the air or drilling moves against a compliant partner. Probably there’s a place for those things, but that’s not where the most and the best learning happens.

Instead, what’s most fun and most instructive is to attempt things against someone who is resisting, fighting back. Then it becomes clear what is important and what is ineffective.

But in order to do this, it is important to find ways to make the live practice safe. In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the safer that practice can be, the better it will be for learning. John Danaher says somewhere that the history of Judo in the nineteenth century shows that the martial art that’s “too deadly to be used in practice” will always lose to the martial art that can be safely practiced with a resisting partner.

After studying and reflecting for innumerable hours over the past year, I’ve come up with ideas for a couple “games” that I think would be exceptionally good for developing the skills needed for unarmed fighting. One of the games is more striking focused, and one is more grappling focused, though both of them incorporate both striking and grappling.

Would my ideas work? I don’t know. If I had training partners who lived nearby and were interested to give it a try, and a place to practice (preferably a big room with mats, but even a deserted soccer field in the summer could do the trick), I would be glad to find out. For now I don’t have those things, so I will try to learn as well as I can with the opportunities that are available.

The Giddiness of Playfighting

I wrote in a previous post that I’ve heard there’s a kind of giddiness that can come from sparring. I’ve now had a glimpse of that for myself.

I haven’t yet experienced it with striking, because so far I haven’t found an opportunity to experience sparring at all in a striking context. Still, when I heard about this experience, it was someone talking about kickboxing sparring, so I feel pretty confident what I experienced is not unique to grappling.

It was in BJJ class. (Feel free to skip past this paragraph if you aren’t familiar with BJJ.) I was trying, against live resistance, to perform an elbow escape from bottom side control, and I was having partial success. I had my frames in, and was keeping the person at a distance, to that other person’s frustration, but I wasn’t able to twist out from underneath quickly enough to start to escape. So we were at a sort of a stalemate, both of us still struggling for our goals.

I was gasping for air, but on my exhales I was releasing brief, chuckling laughs. I wasn’t doing it on purpose, wasn’t trying to play mind games with my opponent or anything. It was almost an involuntary reaction to the situation.

I can’t remember ever having a similar experience in any other sort of sport. Racing after a ball, swinging a bat, winding up for a serve: none of these situations have a similar structure to the experience I was able to have with grappling. I can’t even imagine having an analogous experience in any of those contexts.

I think it’s the combination of safety and trust on the one hand, and on the other hand the physical effort of matching force with force, of fighting (literally) to have victory over the training partner.

You’re not laughing because anything is funny, exactly. But maybe it’s a bit like laughing at a joke. The juxtaposition of things that don’t belong together. The tension of danger and safety. Who knows—maybe the reason why we laugh at jokes is because they’re like playfighting.

Pro lifers and the far right

A question occurred to me today. Is it possible to be firmly pro life and not, according to the definitions of the day, belong to the far right?

I don’t ask in order to say that it’s bad to be pro life, nor to suggest that it might be okay to be far right. I don’t have that sort of a point in mind in asking this question. Rather, I’m just interested to explore definitions and boundaries.

A couple other things I’m not asking. I’m not asking whether it’s statistically true that pro lifers are more likely to agree with far right positions on a variety of questions. I’m not asking whether pro life beliefs or beliefs that cause pro life beliefs render a person somehow more susceptible to far right politics I’m not asking whether convictions characteristic of the far right lead people to be more open to pro life arguments.

Those are all fascinating questions, but I’m here simply asking whether it’s possible for a person, by definition, in our day and age, to be simultaneously pro life and not far right.

I think it’s not possible.

I feel the need to reiterate that this isn’t me condemning any group or belief or vindicating any group or belief. I think it’s just an honest fact, and we can think of it what we will.

If you’re centre right or moderately right wing, then you’re generally more interested in the relationship of politics to economics (and specifically some sort of more or less anti-socialistic economics) than in its relationship to ethics or culture. The far right, by contrast, subordinates economics to ethics or culture and so can end up with a view of economics that allows for or calls for much more government involvement than the centre right is going to be comfortable with. That’s how we define these things today.

If you’re sincerely pro life, then that’s an ethical issue that stands above economic questions. It is an ethical stance that is by definition, today, right wing. Thus, it doesn’t matter where you stand on other questions; you can be as progressive in other areas as you like, but by being pro life you are, today, by definition far right.

It is troubling to me that we have set up our definitions in such a way that we are taking a widespread view and shovelling its adherents into a category that is almost equivalent to reactionary radicalism or extremism. I think that’s dangerous. I think that ends badly. I think real people end up needlessly harmed in profound ways. A disturbing thought.

The Fascination of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

I’ve been doing two hours of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu per week for a little more than two months. I’ve been really enjoying it so far.

At the beginning it made me sore, it made me frustrated, it made me so incredibly exhausted every time. The first couple weeks I felt nervous and even a bit of dread before going.

But probably by the third week I was starting to look forward to it. That’s partly the case because already by that point our numbers were starting to thin out and we were left with a smaller group of people that I’ve really come to like, and we have lost some of the more adversarial, competitive, perhaps insecure people that weren’t as fun to work with at the beginning.

Partly it’s because I started to get the hang of it and figure out how to conserve my energy and use my strength more strategically. So I at least wasn’t so exhausted anymore every week.

For me, I think a big part of it is a combination of confidence in the discipline, and enjoyment of learning. It’s fun to learn, but less fun if you feel like you’re working hard to learn something that’s never going to be useful or relevant.

I feel like this stuff really is timeless in a way, not at all something I will learn once and it will never be good for any possible situation again. I feel like if I was attacked on the street and I got pushed over onto the ground, these skills would be directly relevant. I feel like if I got into a time machine and was entered into a wrestling competition in some ancient Greek polis, what I’m learning would be directly transferable to that context. So I feel like I’m learning something that will be perpetually available and potentially useful to me.

And I’m learning so fast! I think that’s the biggest factor for making BJJ fascinating, and no one seems to talk about it. I haven’t done grappling like this since I was probably like six years old, at a friend’s house one time when we got mad at each other. There is so much to learn, so much low-hanging fruit. Just by going to a place with mats on the floor and rolling around with some other folks who want to learn the same sorts of things, the learning curve is exhilaratingly steep. It’s so easy to learn fast, and the experience is overall an enjoyable one.

People say once you start doing BJJ you can get a bit addicted to it. I always wondered why. These are some of my own first thoughts on the subject.

Revolution against government

Depending on who’s in government, there are always people of one stripe or another who want to stage a violent revolution against the state. Right now, with Trudeau and Biden in charge, English-speaking North America has its revolutionary voices located mainly on the right.

Whoever’s feeling particularly revolutionary in a given moment likes to emphasize that there are indeed situations in which the appropriate, or even the obligatory, thing to do is to overthrow the government in a sudden show of force.

That’s true. Theoretically, and in my opinion also historically, there are moments when the regime is so bad that a citizen’s responsibility might be to participate in insurrection.

However, that’s usually not why people want revolution, when noisy ideological voices talk about the need for revolution. What they like to talk about is how revolutions can sometimes be justified. That’s what they want to convince themselves and their friends and their audiences is the reason pushing them to fantasize about revolution. But that’s not really it.

They just want to be David fighting the evil Goliath. They want their lives to be meaningful and exciting. They want to be the underdog republic fighting the galactic empire, the overburdened colonists resisting the pompous Brits.

They dress that desire up and try to disguise it. They squint at the political situation of the moment and seek out plausible reasons why today we have to act right now or else the future is handed over to totalitarianism. They try to convince themselves there’s a legitimate and even noble motive for their imagined scenarios of heroism, of bulging muscles and swinging guns, slain tyrants and awestruck masses.

The only valid reason for insurrection is when the consequences of leaving the government in place are clearly worse than all the negative consequences that will come from violent regime change and civil war. That is a fantastically high bar to meet. It means that in a lot of situations a pretty seriously bad government should be tolerated rather than overthrown. Tolerated here doesn’t mean accepted or embraced; it only means that patiently working to improve things by the legal, institutional, political means already available within the state is almost always going to be the superior choice to bringing about sudden change in a political community by force.

Loyalty as dehumanizing the other

I was accused a couple years ago, by more than one conversation partner, of belonging to an ideological camp that I truly do not identify with at all. It was strange, at once both unsettling and a little entertaining.

On reflection, I realized that the reason I seemed to each of these fellows to belong to this other camp was because of my unwillingness to demonize the adherents of that ideological position and their convictions.

It wasn’t that I agreed with the people I was supposedly aligned with. It certainly wasn’t that I ever claimed membership in that particular political tribe. It was just that I wanted us to consider their arguments fairly and not assume stupid or malicious motivations behind their commitments.

It seems to me that that is increasingly the price of admission on either side of the ideological divide. Not only is it the price of admission – it’s almost the only criterion for membership.

It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you don’t affirm their beliefs, whatever they happen to believe at this moment. It doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you hate them with the same ferocity as we do. It doesn’t matter what your arguments are or how bad they are, so long as your weak arguments are all directed against them.

As long as that is our approach to politics, we are actively making ourselves less virtuous and wise, making ourselves increasingly vicious and stupid.

We make ourselves less virtuous because we are finding excuses for indulging and nurturing the lowest, angriest, most hateful and despicable parts of ourselves. And we make ourselves stupid by learning to judge arguments not by their quality but by how well we like their conclusions. This can lead us nowhere good.

Martial arts, appearance and reality

In the past several months I’ve periodically tried to think through what it might be that has got me wanting to think and learn about martial arts in the last couple years. I had another insight recently.

A handful of years ago, I decided to start lifting weights to get bigger and stronger. I had asked myself whether I’d rather be stronger or not, and it seemed clear to me that if I could be stronger, I’d want to be. The question was whether it was possible and whether it would be practicable, not whether it was desirable. So I did some research, I tried, and I found some success.

How does this lead to martial arts? It comes down to the reason why I wanted to work out and get stronger. There are multiple reasons, of course, and none is most important. But one of the reasons was that I wanted to look a little more dangerous, in case that would ever be a benefit. I hoped that if I was ever walking down a dark street and someone thought about attacking me, or some such scenario, I’d be safer just from the fact that a person might be dissuaded by seeing signs of physical strength.

A lot of guys who have bulging physiques seem to make this assumption, that being strong means being tough, that lifting weights is the same as being good at fighting. In some ways, it’s a sensible assumption! The two things aren’t entirely unrelated. All else being equal, the stronger person will probably win a fight against a weaker person.

And yet, knowing how to fight is generally a much more significant factor in a fight than how much weight a person can bench press. Having the knowledge and the skills and the specific athletic adaptations that are relevant for fighting will contribute much more to winning a fight than sheer weight-lifting prowess by itself.

And I realized that what this meant was, I desired the appearance of being someone who’d be dangerous in a fight, but I wasn’t acting as if I desired the reality of being such a person.

If my actions showed that I cared about the appearance of having a thing, doesn’t that suggest that I should also care about the reality of having the thing? If it makes me happy and confident to think I appear like I’d be dangerous in a fight, wouldn’t I be more happy and confident if I knew I could actually be dangerous in a fight? That’s how I was thinking, at some point a couple years ago. And it seems like I managed to convince myself.