Courage in Karate: The Role of Vulnerability

“Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

We so often take it for granted, as instructors, as seniors, what it takes for our students to keep returning to the mat. We have long forgotten that once upon a time, stepping onto the tatami required great courage. While seniors tend to suffer from Imposter Syndrome, our juniors and new students still face fears we have since forgotten.

In her work on shame and vulnerability, Brene Brown talks about how vulnerability, the willingness to try despite not having all the answers, enduring the risk of emotional, physical and mental exposure, is the driving force behind courage and growth.

“The willingness to show up changes us, It makes us a little braver each time.”
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

How vulnerable the new student is – all these new faces, this towering presence of a Sensei, these older kids who know what to do. All the rituals that have to be followed that make no sense. Why the bowing? Why can’t I wear socks in the winter? Why is everyone shouting this weird word all the time?

I think we forget so often that it takes great bravery to join a dojo. To learn something utterly foreign in so many ways, and to stick it out day after day after day. We so often forget to praise this, the consistency of showing up. The bravery of putting on mitts and sparring. The harsh spotlight of performing a kata alone. And to do it all as a tiny kid, or an adult who has forgotten what it takes to learn something new.

Perhaps one of the most important ways we can support our students and not lose them is to celebrate this daily bravery. To recognise that they are putting themselves out there, willing to learn and so terrified of failure or humiliation. I’ve been on the mat so long and so often that I’ve forgotten that once upon a time, every single move was difficult. I was not born with great natural talent, but sheer bloody-minded dedication got me to where I am today. It is important that we remind ourselves of how far we’ve come, and to not expect the same of our fledgling students. I know that it is not my place or journey to find the next Miyagi. But what I want to do, as an instructor-in-training and hopefully as an instructor one day, is to help others find their authentic selves through karate. To help them find a new confidence, a place to belong, and develop personal strength and integrity. In the modern world, karate is still a valuable tool for self-discovery and self-improvement. To treat karate as an instant answer to self-defence problems is short-sighted, and parents who think it’ll magically cure all behaviour issues without input from their side are wasting their money. It is a great sadness that many parents expect their kids to pick karate up instantly, not knowing how difficult it actually is. They fail to acknowledge this, and in so doing make their kids feel inadequate.

The most important thing we can encourage in our students is bravery. Bravery will take them far in all they do. It will help them take risks and endure difficult things. That bravery comes from vulnerability, and as teachers, it is our place to celebrate and support that immense act of courage. 

“Wholeheartedness. There are many tenets of Wholeheartedness, but at its very core is vulnerability and worthiness; facing uncertainty, exposure, and emotional risks, and knowing that I am enough.”
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

For more on vulnerability: 

Review of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

the-twelve-tribes_custom-6a80054024c857973e6515991a8ed02933f28957-s6-c10The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis arrived with a great deal of literary street cred: it had been recommended by Oprah, who can still make or break books with nary a blog post. It came with a stunning recommendation from Marilynne Robinson, Orange Prize and Pulitzer Prize winner. Comparisons are being made to inimitable Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison.

Does Twelve Tribes of Hattie live up to these extraordinary claims? This book is an easy shoo-in for my top 13 for 2013, and is unlikely to be booted out of that list any time soon. While the Toni Morrison comparisons are not unfounded, I feel this book deserves more than being lumped in the ‘black female writer’ bracket and being treated as a progressive read by lily-white book clubs. This book, while touching on race, also deals with everything from family to gender to psychosis, while stopping by to discuss religion as well as music. There’s even a brush through midwifery and traditional healing. It is, quite surprisingly, more of a collection of short stories than it is a traditional novel. Through the twelve children of Hattie we discover twelve stories of twelve people, beginning with the heartbreaking departure of Philadelphia and Jubilee and the salvation of Sala.


Eponymous Hattie is triumphantly drawn, though her life is a wide collection of pain and sacrifice. Called The General by her children, she is a hard, tough, strong woman who bears the pain of losing her children in every manner, who has a husband who is “the greatest mistake of her life”, who somehow manages to feed and clothe and raise a veritable horde of children, each of which grows into and inherits their share of trouble. Each chapter is a look through a prism at Hattie, and her impact on the lives of her children. She is never far from the foreground, and even if she doesn’t appear in the action, she appears in every chapter. Mathis has drawn a remarkably complex woman that one struggles to like or hate, though her strength is easy enough to love.

Ayana Mathis

Ayana Mathis

The novel asks: how do you prepare your children for a world you know is cruel? Through Hattie the reader explores the burdens of parenting, of growing up in the shadow of a mother’s pain and how even the very best intentions can go horribly awry. Add to this the difficulties of racial tensions and outright hatred in America between 1925 – 1980, of being black and gay, of being black and ill, and the novel is filled with complicated troubles and unsentimental discussion. This isn’t a misery memoir but it is filled with great sadness, as it is also lightened by moments of happiness and growth.

Pick this up because you will weep for Hattie, and all she endures for so little thanks. For all she loses, and for all that her children suffer, and for the outstanding depth and maturity of this debut author’s prose.

Read more:

Oprah Interviews Ayana Mathis

Sarah Churchill reviews Twelve Tribes for The Guardian

 The Sunday Times: Three Writers to Watch

 The Atlantic: The Russian Poetry that Inspires Ayana Mathis

A Stirring Portrait of Family, Loss, and Endurance: The Everyday E-Book

The New York Times Sunday Review

VIDEO: Ayana Mathis’ 3 Greatest Writing Lessons

Dear TV-Watchers

Dear Fans of Reality Shows

A reality show such as Master Chef, Survivor or The Apprentice is as removed from real life as Spongebob Squarepants. After watching fans of Master Chef shit all over Exclusive Books over a cookery book displayed in a window, I can’t help feeling even more disappointed in the human race than usual. Here is a list of things that truly deserve your attention:

–         South Sudan has the least infrastructure of any country in the world and could use some help getting started.

–         4 million chickens are shredded and boiled to death every week in South Africa: think about the shit that you put in your mouth.

–         There are kids freezing to death every night

–         There is a petrol strike on and there’s no gas to be found

–         Rape is endemic and no one is being held accountable for it

–         The United States might have no economy to speak of in a few months

–         Sarah Palin is running for the 2012 candidacy, a woman who thinks hunting is a human right, virulently anti-abortion and thinks Afghanistan is a US neighbour

–         We have the lowest literacy rates in Africa, putting us below countries in the middle of revolutions, wars and genocides

And this is the utterly asinine shit people tend to concern themselves with:

–         the ‘joy’ of royal weddings

–         Master Chef Australia and the winner thereof

–         Jennifer Lopez’s buttocks

–         The Idols dropouts

–         Charlie Sheen

–         The Hangover 2

Please look at this picture of a starving child.

A well nourished Sudanese man steals maize from a starving child during a food distribution at the Medecins Sans Frontieres feeding centre in Ajiep, southern Sudan. from Tom Stoddart's iWitness Gallery

No, don’t scroll down. Look at that child. Crawling in the dirt. Hungry. And not “I haven’t eaten since this morning” hungry. Not “Its so cold today” inside an air-conditioned office cold. Not “oh my god I have to get up and actually go to work” tired. Try imagine what its like to watch someone walk away with your food and there’s no fridge to go scratch around in. This child’s suffering is pornographic in its extremes, but I want you to look at this and then think about all the retarded shit that us first-world people complain about. “I don’t have enough bandwidth. I don’t want to break a R50 note buying cappuccino. I have to wear an extra layer today. I’ve been invited to this party but I don’t’ feel like going, its too far to drive.”
All the energy that people spent on phoning in to 702 to complain about something that hadn’t even happened (the winner of Master Chef will only have their book released next week) could have been spent on protesting the government’s dire approach to media freedom. But no: the real travesty is that the winner of Master Chef’s book might have been on display. Fuck the starving kids, the political troubles, the troubling nature of Rupert Murdoch: a cookbook was displayed and someone needed to be punished.

I know there’s escapism and I would never begrudge people that. But the problem is that nearly everyone is hiding their faces in the bosom of television and tabloids, allowing the bad shit to go unchecked. If the government knew that their every movement was being tracked by the people, then they would pull their socks up. But instead you watch too much TV and read too much Heat magazine. Its so much easier to keep up with the river of shit that is Gray’s Anatomy or Gossip Girl than taking an active interest in the welfare of the country.

So yes, those who get upset that Vodacom was down for a day, or that the ending of some pointless reality show got leaked, I hope you will get upset when I call you an uninterested, fuckwitted drain on society. Because if you get upset then it means you are embarrassed, and maybe that will be some kind of incentive to turn the television off and maybe do 67 minutes of charity more often than every July. Knit a blanket for a kid. Drop some pet food off at the SPCA. There are trolleys at the Pick and Pay to put in food for shelters. Write a letter to the ANCYL telling them to stop wiping their arses with money and actually do what they promised for the poor. Sign every internet petition that comes your way, because those petitions are changing the world. Go volunteer to teach something to someone. Eat one less meal with meat in it. Buy fair trade coffee. Boycott Nestle. Go to an orphanage and read to the kids there.

But for fuck’s sake, don’t phone a radio station to complain about a cookbook.

Colorado and Crazy People

First off: see this case about a 12 year old trying to kill his family –

I think cases of this kind unfortunately kick up far too much dust around too many issues for the core of the situation to be clear. There will be the usual cliché ‘nature vs nurture’ arguments, and the gun control lobby will be out in full force. The gun-lovers will bray that ‘people kill people’. Every tuppenny shrink with an opinion will arise to blame something. The details in this case are scant enough to ensure everyone has a full run of opinionated fun times. I count myself amongst them. The parents will be blamed. The guns will be called into question. (But as Dylan Moran says, ‘guns have limited household applications’). The homeschooling will be pointed at. Colorado will somehow also be to blame, the education system, the tap water, the siblings, anything besides pointing at the fact that sometimes, people are born psychotic. Shows like Dexter and books like the Hannibal Lector series have engendered the idea that people can be psychotic and useful, but anyone with common sense still wouldn’t leave their children with these people. I enjoy these shows myself, and I’m not sure why. Maybe because it makes psychotics redeemable? That no one is ever really, truly evil? I don’t really feel like going on a fact-finding mission of all the shitty things people have done to each other for evidence of why the above is so very wrong. For now, I reference Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Goldhagen, Sudan, Rwanda, Abu Ghraib, and The Lucifer Effect by Phillip Zimbardo.

Maybe the hardest reality is that sometimes, kids are evil and fucked up. I may have to revise this when there are more facts on the case, but for a 12 year old to stab and shoot parents and siblings does not point to any normalancy. Some people will say “oh but the circumstances!” and these are often also the same people that think House is a moving and profound series. I thought it was cool when I was depressed and I felt no one understood my tormented genius pain. Now I realise that it actually is a terribly repetitive show that relies on someone fucked-up for entertainment value and cheap thrills. People do not do drugs because they are so incredibly cool and sexy: they do drugs because they do not have the backbone to deal with reality. But, then again, we do live in a society that avidly follows the rise and fall of druggies, so perhaps I should go back to the mothership and communicate with my leaders.

In any case, if a 12 year old has the capacity to source and repeatedly use a gun, he also has the capacity to not use it. Freudians will say “oh, but his ID this and Ego that” but, really, how many twelve year olds actually get hold of guns and live out their temper tantrums on that kind of level? Twelve year olds can earn money through chores and are capable of saving and spending it (and understand economics, on a minor level), they are having sex, some of them are drinking, some of them work as child soldiers. That they are capable of these things (with or without coercion) means that they can be held responsible for what they do. The twelve year olds I have met show insight that I do not expect of their age, and only because they’re a few months short of being teenagers. The mistake here is that we assume children are stupid. They are not even remotely so, and there is a recordof children committing acts of violence. (The link is only handy for case studies, but I wouldn’t really take advice from it on how/why child murderers arise.) I remember reading several cases last year of children raping and kidnapping, even ganging up to kill smaller children, both in South Africa and around the world. There was the parricide case in Durban 2009 in Pinetown that is ongoing, for example.

I don’t want to believe all children are fucked up and evil: that’s not my point. My point is that we make the mistake of assuming all children are innocent, and then are surprised when there are Columbine shootings and abductions and parricide. What people may pass off as cutesy temper tantrums might actually warn of impending disaster. Perhaps if kids were paid more attention, maybe they wouldn’t get to this point. I don’t know how we should all be raising kids. All I can offer is that we are always, always aware that their capacity for good can be matched by evil. And even I hate using the word ‘evil’ because Hitler is evil, Pol Pot is evil, and to use it in the context of children seems so wrong. But as the movie Magnolia noted, it is only fools that mistake all children for angels.

I expect I’ll get hate mail for this post. But I will not apologise for being honest. Kids can be amazing, and a lot of them do a great deal more their communities and friends than many adults. They are the chance every generation gets to do something right, the templates for change and growth. Because of this, they need to be respected as human beings, and not  treated like accessories or burdens. Respecting them will hopefully cut out, to some extent, this kind of fucked-up behaviour, and perhaps that’s something worth mentioning and striving for.