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Every so often, I wonder why I study martial arts -- not why I study aikido or iaido, but fundamentally why I'm attracted to the arts. For that matter, most of my hobbies are centered on war and conflict. I like building scale models (mostly of warplanes), I play board war games, I study history and military history and write magazine articles about those subjects, I like going to airshows and visiting warship museums, and I regularly compete in high power rifle competitions.
To be sure, I'm not completely off balance. I've got hobbies that aren't related to war or human conflict. I love baseball and regularly go to our local minor league team's games. I'm a huge Penn State football fan. I'm on my church's council. I'm also a computer geek and write magazine articles on Linux. For that matter, I enjoy my work and love learning more about my profession. Naturally, I enjoy my family and participating in the things that are important to my wife and child.
But still, war, conflict, and violence are implicit in a lot of my activities. My personality and temperament are such that I tend to embrace conflict. Healthy debate and sincere disagreement/engagement over something important energizes me. At the same time, I profoundly dislike violence. I've used my training in real situations twice so far -- both times I felt good about the way I handled myself and my opponent, but regretted that physical force had been necessary. I love a good fictional fight scene, but I know that reality is not so wonderful and empowering. The fights I've been in have resulted in a horrible empty feeling after the adrenalin is gone.
I love conflict but abhor violence. I am fascinated by war, but appalled by it. I study to be as good as I can be at killing and maiming other people, but fervently hope I never need to do so. I believe strongly that we should live lives based on grace, healing, and forgiveness, but I'm prepared to kill to protect myself and my family. Why?
For one thing, these paradoxes aren't unique to me. I'll bet that a good majority of martial artists head home after practice from time to time thinking about the paradox of how much fun it is to practice techniques that could kill or seriously injure somebody else.
Given all of that, why do I study martial arts. A couple of good reasons spring to mind:
1) It's cool. Seriously. There is something very satisfying about training one's body and mind in this manner. I'd actually lump the shooting in with aikido and iaido here. All three arts take skill, a lot of practice, efficiency of movement, and discipline. The equipment is pretty cool too. It is ironic, but understandable, that technological advances tend to be made or deployed first for war, and then for civil applications.
2) Familiarity breeds respect. Somewhere deep in my psyche is lodged an ethic that it is better to face something unpleasant and threatening than run from it. (That ethic is closely bound to the one that states that the best things in life come from hard work.) The martial arts teach me to put injury and death -- and therefore all sorts of other unpleasant things -- into some perspective. The arts provide a discipline and framework to help understand how and why violence happens and what to do about it.
3) Camaraderie. Like I said, I'm not terribly unique, and it is a joy to work out with folks who have a similar fascination with the arts and a similar (and often greater) dedication to training.