Why to study martial arts

I don’t study martial arts, and haven’t since I was a kid. The last time I did practice a martial art, I hated it.

I am interested to resume studying them at some point in the future. I’ve come back to it a bit later in life. I’m entering the latter half of my thirties, and have not been able to work on my physical fitness to the level I’d like in recent years thanks to a set of circumstances that I’m overall very grateful for. (Being a parent is one of my greatest joys, but having needy little toddlers in the house all day and no family living close by, means not getting a lot of time to oneself. Prioritizing language learning and the study of good books in that situation, even in small ways, means having basically no other leftover free time when the day with the family is over.) So I’m not expecting to become a great fighter, not by any stretch, only hoping to learn some skills that could someday be useful to know.

The conclusion that this is a worthwhile way to spend time has grown up within me, following along with another set of growing beliefs, over the course of several years. As I said in a recent post, whenever that happens, I find myself with a feeling that the conclusion is well-founded, but I can’t quite summon immediately the line of reasoning that led me to it. I have a feeling that such a line of reasoning exists, just beyond my grasp, forgotten, and all I need to do is remember it. Much of this blog so far has been me trying to remember, reconstruct, rediscover such forgotten lines of reasoning. The big problem with such an approach is that I am liable to seize on a weak argument, mistake it for the original one that led me to my conclusion because the weak one is obvious and easy to piece together, and then mistakenly assume that it is stronger than it really is. Or at least, pretend to think it’s stronger than it really is, and hope no one points out the flaws, and kick myself for still not quite being able to remember the good argument that I’m sure I knew once.

But what’s the alternative? Here’s the first alternative approach that occurs to me: list three possible positions (e.g., martial arts are worth studying, they are not worth studying, or it doesn’t matter whether you decide to study them or not), and make a list of arguments for and against them. I think that’s a good starting point for thinking through a question, but in a way it’s not much better than the first sort of approach, because it stays at the level of the superficial, even more than the first approach. “Martial arts is good exercise, and it can help you meet people, and you might be able to defend yourself if someone attacks you randomly!” All of those are wonderful things, and I’m sure you can find a million websites with lists like that. But my feeling is that there’s a much deeper, more coherent, more human reason residing behind my conviction than a cheery list like that can possibly convey.

So, let this post be that first imperfect step, as an experiment. Maybe it will help draw me more deeply into discovering what that deeper reasoning could be, since the first approach didn’t seem to do all that well, no matter how often I tried it. There’s something appealingly Thomistic about this manner of proceeding. Just a note: I will be choosing only arguments that are convincing to me, so even though an argument from pacifism would be relevant to the question I’m not a pacifist so I will pass over that in silence.

It is better not to study martial arts because, insofar as the martial art will be useful, it will also be dangerous. If you aren’t sparring then you won’t be all that much better prepared to fight, but if you are sparring then there’s a pretty good likelihood you will take some injuries that will cause chronic problems later on. Besides, most violent encounters won’t be made better by martial arts training; if the attacker is part of a group, or has a weapon, or catches you by surprise, then you’ll probably lose the fight anyway even with all the training in the world. So it’s a waste of time and worse than a waste of time.

It doesn’t matter whether you study martial arts because, while there are undeniably benefits that can be gained from studying martial arts, the great majority of those benefits can be gained in other ways without studying martial arts, with a bit of forethought. These alternatives are faster and cheaper to acquire, and can be more effective, and do not come with the serious risks of martial arts training. But if that’s how you want to get the benefits, it is one legitimate way to go and it probably does have some small advantages not present in the other options.

It is best to study martial arts, if you’re able, because, well, I actually don’t want to limit even the superficial of that discussion to one or two paragraphs, it turns out. So I will continue this in a part 2 post!

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