This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Katherine Derbyshire © 2015, all rights reserved.
Many martial artists have trouble asking for help. After all, isn't self-reliance the whole point? Many people come to the dojo in the first place because of bad experiences: being in physical danger, being afraid, having trust betrayed, depending on someone unreliable. They come looking for empowerment, wanting to protect themselves instead of depending on others.
At the beginning, it almost works. At the beginning, it's possible to pretend that depending only on oneself is a reasonable goal. Show up in class, work hard on the things the teacher demonstrates, gradually progress through the ranks. Become more and more capable.
The longer I train, though, the more I believe that the real lesson has nothing to do with developing self-reliance. The real lesson is understanding that self-reliance is impossible.
It starts, typically, at some point in the upper kyu ranks. Depending on the dojo, it's around then that preparing for tests starts to require more specific attention than just showing up. Time outside of class, time working with a trainer and/or the person who'll be taking ukemi for the test, or even just asking the instructor to spend class time on higher-level techniques that usually don't get much attention. Promotions at this level generally don't just happen, they require affirmative action of some kind. One way or another, the person has to ask for help.
I sometimes wonder if this is one of the reasons why so many people get stuck. Asking for help is hard. Admitting that — even after years of practice — there are still so many mysteries, so many things to work on, is hard. Harder than being a beginner in some ways. Beginners realize that they don't know anything, but they also know they are beginners. But getting to first or second kyu, making some progress on that whole self-reliance goal, and then having to admit to (still) needing help? It's hard.
And it only gets worse. Black belt ranks bring more demanding tests, more specific preparation. Whole new areas of the curriculum — weapons! multiple attackers! — and the need to get help from more and more senior students. Who, being senior, are of course going to be the most capable and intimidating people in the dojo. Eek!
Then there's teaching. Worse even than having to ask seniors or peers for help, to be a teacher is to be utterly dependent on junior students. If no one comes to the dojo, there is no class. If no one is willing to sit through a new teacher's rambling monologues and technical confusion, then there is no way for the teacher to improve. If there are no students, there is no dojo.
At the beginning of each class, each technique, we say, "Please help me. Please teach me. Please practice with me." At the end, we say, simply, sincerely, "Thank you."
If aikido offers any lessons of value outside the dojo, surely this simple ritual of asking for help and thanking the giver of help heads the list. We may not all have opportunities to chastise muggers, but we all need help. We all can give help. And we all can be grateful for help received. No one gets there alone.
"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.