This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Katherine Derbyshire © 2014, all rights reserved.
I remember when I realized my aikido could hurt people. I was probably second or third kyu at the time, and I'd just spent a class exuberantly tossing someone around. Many flying break falls. No injuries. A good time was had by all.
Except for some reason it got me thinking. In the dojo, we have mats. We spend as much time practicing falls as we do practicing techniques. Random people don't fall like that. They fall like sacks of potatoes, or they sacrifice their joints as they struggle to remain upright. Execute a technique at full power against an untrained opponent, and he's likely to hit the ground pretty hard, likely to sustain some damage.
(Yes, I'm aware that successfully executing a technique against a resisting attacker is non-trivial. That's not what this column is about. Moving right along…)
It wasn't a possibility I'd ever really considered before. I'm a small woman with no particular athletic experience beyond aikido. Women in our society are much more likely to be victims of physical aggression than perpetrators of it, and their socialization reflects that reality. They aren't really taught how to use physical power responsibly.
After not really thinking about the issue for most of my adult life, to suddenly realize that I was capable of causing physical injury to another person was shocking. And terrifying. Sort of like being handed the leash for a large and aggressive dog and being told, "Be careful, he bites," as the owner leaves town on vacation. Sure, that big Rottweiler is a good companion if you're walking through Central Park at night, but what happens when he bites your drunk Uncle Walter, or the neighbor's overly rambunctious child? That's a problem.
One of the things you learn if you have a large dog is to avoid trouble. When you see someone fighting to control their own dog, maybe that's a good time to cross the street. No, it isn't actually a good idea to stop and chat with the mailman. Maybe you should let the chihuahua's owner get her dog safely inside the fence before you walk down that section of sidewalk. Yes, of course you're constantly working with your dog to help him become calmer, more obedient, but in the meantime you minimize potentially stressful situations.
What's the human equivalent? Many people study martial arts at least in part because they want to be able to protect themselves. We might have little action movie scenes playing in our heads, not that we'd ever admit it. The last thing we want to believe is that having training forces you to be more careful. And yet it does. With the ability to damage another person comes the possibility of being legally and morally responsible if a situation gets out of hand.
In my case, I see it as getting better at threat assessment. Shortcuts through dark alleys are still a terrible idea. But most of the conflicts that most people face are less clear cut: the overly familiar drunk guy at a party, or the person who wants to throw a fit over a parking space. Thinking about the responsible use of force has made me realize how few situations actually call for it. Sure, I could probably inflict a lot of discomfort on an unwelcome wandering hand. I could slap him, probably harder than he expects, or pour a drink over his head, and be full of self-righteous indignation over his rude behavior. But why? A calm tone and a cold stare backed by the years I've spent learning to project intent works just as well, without spoiling the party for everyone else.
And that parking space? Yeah, I've had a rough day, too. Shouting at a stranger over the hood of a car might be just what I need to blow off some steam. On the other hand, if you want it badly enough to get out of your car and yell at me, I really don't need to get tangled up in your anger management issues. Walking a few extra feet is better for my blood pressure and your health, even if you don't realize it.
When you've been training as long as I have, it's hard to say what changes are due to the training itself and which are just a natural result of maturity. Maybe any practice that makes you more aware of the world around you would have similar benefits. Aikido is my practice; I can't comment on the effectiveness of others. Sadly, just a few minutes watching the evening news shows that maturity is not so common, even among people supposedly "old enough to know better." All too many people are just looking for an excuse to let go of that big dog swaggering at their side, over a parking space or loud music, over a spilled drink or a crushed bumper. Too many people are too eager to play out that mental action movie in real life.
Not everyone is prepared to accept the responsibility that comes with having a dog from a large, assertive breed. Such dogs often end up at animal shelters, or euthanized as "unadoptable" because their owners couldn't or wouldn't teach them how to behave around other people and dogs. Sometimes, the dog becomes a menacing presence at the side of the sort of owner whose own aggressive tendencies are not well-controlled. Sometimes, a more docile breed, or an animal with less destructive potential might be a happier choice.
The same training that we use to develop these skills should teach us how to use them wisely. Dojo practice is a daily confrontation with power and violence — your own and that of other people. (See also Peter Boylan's excellent article on the subject.) The stubborn uke who won't fall down, the frightened uke who won't attack, every personality that exists in the world exists on the mat. The situations are artificial, controlled, a laboratory where the intensity can be increased or decreased as needed, and the consequences of mistakes are minimized.
Some martial artists refuse to face the responsibility that comes with increasing ability. They quit. They avoid high-intensity practice situations. They might be wonderful mentors to junior students, even as their own training stagnates. Or, at the other extreme, they insist on hard, fast training regardless of their partner's ability. Students at this end of the spectrum might quit, too, in search of a more intense style. They might even be asked to leave because of their failure to develop self-control.
Well-trained, the "protective" dog breeds — Rottweilers, German Shepherds, and similar dogs — make wonderful companions. Fearless, intelligent, loyal, they repay all the hours invested in their training.
Aikido is a difficult path. Powerful techniques combined with a strong protective ethos, demanding a constant search for balance. Fierce, indomitable will, lying beneath the cool, placid surface of a mountain lake. Neither too hard nor too soft, it repays all the hours invested in training.
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.