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Home > Columns > "The Grindstone" > January, 2006 - Milestones

Milestones by "The Grindstone"

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This column was written by Tarik Ghbeish

In California, currently (January, 2006), a debate is raging over the imposition of test requirements before conferring students their high school diplomas, perhaps one of the first significant milestones in a young adults life. The test is made up primarily of 8th grade level mathematics, reading, writing, and comprehension skills. Fundamental skills that, even if not fully mastered at this stage of life, are the skills that really open the door to a lifetime of further learning.

Opponents of this testing process have argued that requiring students to pass this test is penalizing them for not having the skills to pass the test when it is not their fault that they don't have the skills.

Proponents argue that conferring the diploma upon students who have not demonstrated the skills represented on the exam makes the diploma worthless, and ultimately penalizes the students themselves by suggesting to them that they are qualified high school graduates, ready for the next level of education.

Without entering further into the politics of the situation, I will simply state that I come down on the side of maintaining the meaning of our milestones. There are many milestones in life. They range from the highly personal, such as birthdays, graduations, weddings, and funerals to the more general, perhaps more common, such as awards for contests, competitions, performances, black belt exams and many more.

In modern society, it seems to me, many milestones have become very self-congratulatory, more about the individuals involved than anything else. Examples abound of the frequently narcissistic, perhaps adding to the jaded outlook that we often take when it comes to celebrating a milestone.

Yet, milestones are important. Milestones can be rites of passage and celebrating legitimate, important accomplishments. In an ideal world, they are also about sharing the experiences that brought the celebrant to their acknowledged position. Perhaps the best milestones in our lives are those that are both the recognition of accomplishments, and proffered signposts, marking the way for those who must follow. But milestones are not only self-indulgent.

Birthdays are the obvious celebration that is, perhaps legitimately, all about the individual involved. Yet in one of the cultures in which I was raised, birthdays, if celebrated at all, are intended to be a recognition of another year passing, but more importantly, an acknowledgement to the parents of all that they have accomplished and contributed to bring the individual to the current stage in their life.

I have passed many of my own birthdays seeking ways to acknowledge these facts, sometimes giving gifts myself, but more often simply hosting those I care about in a meal that I approach as a sort of thanksgiving wherein I give thanks to them for taking a significant part in my life.

Each milestone and right of passage can be cast in a very different light by looking at it with this perception. How did I arrive here? Who and what made it possible? Where do I go from here? What can I learn from observing those who have achieved this milestone?

My grandparent's memorial service was perhaps one of the most significant milestones in their life that I was able to take a part in. It held more meaning to me even than their 50th anniversary. We reflected upon their lives, and upon what they had accomplished, what they had stood up for, and what examples they had been. They literally died in part because they held firm to beliefs with which many in their lives fundamentally disagreed. They were acknowledged, flawed human beings, and yet from them and their lives, I learned the nature of unconditional love.

If we are not the actual celebrants, the milestone is still significant, for it offers us a way to evaluate our own path and to understand how we can incrementally seek out and achieve the goals that we set out for ourselves.

In the martial arts, this is no different, and yet the milestones of exams and rank are perhaps one of the areas of great controversy in the martial arts. Many sincere and insincere students come into the dojo with that same all-important question in mind, "How long will take for me to get a black belt?"

The controversy of rank seems to lie in the extreme values that get placed on it.

We are all familiar with the black belt clubs, where one can purchase their way to rank without deep knowledge gained. We are also all probably aware of the schools where it takes an individual an inflated degree of effort to earn the rank of shodan, or 1st degree black belt.

Certainly each individual is on their own pace and path to learn, but the intent of the examples is to illustrate two extremes that often exist. One extreme that undervalues the meaning of rank, placing a monetary value upon it, and another extreme that overvalues it, makes it almost impossible to attain.

We are all familiar with the student who is all consumed by their quest for the ultimate rank, that 'black belt'. You may have also met those students who are so disenchanted or afraid of some part of the process that they refuse to accept rank, become prideful themselves in their rejection of the system of acknowledgement in their art.

For those who have studied with enough sincerity and time, the rank black belt is hardly an extraordinary achievement. Certainly it is an important one, but a proper understanding of the rank is that it, as with the high school diploma so hotly debated in California, is little more than a license to learn and an acknowledgement that the student now has the tools to begin their real studies. It takes longer and significantly more effort to acquire a college degree, particularly when one considers the pre-requisites to such an attainment.

We all know people who are narcissistic and thrive when they are the center of attention, abusing the spotlight. We also know people who are unable to accept a compliment, who are overly embarrassed or ashamed to be the center of attention. We have probably all been both of those people at various times in our lives, in smaller or larger ways.

In it's inevitable way, the wheel turns, and those of us who live our lives out fully each have those moments, and each must learn how to avoid negating the value of those moments.

When we overvalue or undervalue the milestones in our lives, we allow them to lose their value and their meaning. It is critically important that we refine our ability to acknowledge our milestones without becoming lost in them.

It is perhaps the richest irony that in order to most deeply understand and appreciate the milestones in our lives, that we must put aside our ego and critically examine the accomplishment, and then, having done so, we must put aside our critical mind and bask in the achievement.

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