Fencing: Life Lessons

There are many lifelong and deep lessons to be learned from the martial arts, and my one year of fencing holds some of the richest memories in this regard; these are principles I will carry with me throughout life, and hopefully pass on to others.

The uniform:

Our fencing master was a Vietnam veteran, and he would tell us of the initialization process he went through in basic training. He would remember getting onto the bus with some of the meanest looking characters you could imagine and watching the transformation. The hair lost, the biker jackets dispensed with, all individuality taken away until everyone stood exposed to each other.

When we came to his class we lost our outer-selves and were presented to each other in a white uniform. He told us to leave the stress of home, of school, of work, to leave the stress of our life behind as we entered. It was time to fence, and there was no room for anything else.

I’m BS’ing you:

Our teacher had a certain humorous honesty about him as he foretold that if he asserted anything outside of his mastery, that is, if he were talking about anything other than fencing, we should assume he was lying. He preferred a more colorful way of saying this though.

Being a fan of Plato’s Apologia I was stunned at this humble wisdom. So few people know what they know and instead think themselves wise. A wise man is aware of what he does and doesn’t know and often perceives the lowliness of man’s wisdom. Our instructor knew what he knew.

Ask to understand:

He was always prompting us to ask questions. He would stop lecturing, and with a smile say, “Doesn’t anyone want to call me on this?”

The lessons stayed with you, not just because he was a good teacher, but because he taught us the principles of what we were doing, principles that could help us make the touché or simply keep us from panicking when life seemed to come at us from all directions. More on that in strategies.

Sometimes they need to get the touché:

One day he drew me aside and told me something profound.

“Sometimes,” he said, “the other guy is having a bad day. You don’t know what is going on in his life and he comes here and sometimes he just needs to make a touché.”

I had to think on that for awhile before it hit me that it had been said before, turn the other cheek. Embrace true meekness and love your neighbor who comes and puts on the white garments next to you. You don’t know the path they took to get here.

Strategies:

There was no end to the subtlety and simplicity presented in our classes, but one of the most important strategies was perhaps this, simplify your situation. It was taught in a hundred different ways and through many memorable anecdotes. For the new students he would explain the history of fencing and the four quadrants created by the blade.

An attack could come at you from four places: above and to the right of the blade, above and to the left, below and to the left, below and right. Wouldn’t it be better, fencers of old thought, if you only had to worry about two of the four attacks? Simplify the situation and hold yourself to the left of the foil, now only an attack from upper left and lower left can reach you. Not simple enough? Lower your blade. Now the only attack that can come at you will be from the upper left quadrant. You know where they will attack, now it is just a matter of when.

He also talked about fencing yourself. He told this story: He had made it to the final match of a tournament but knew himself lost because his opponent always beat him. They would practice together and this friend held that the circle six was the best and only parry to use. Whenever they sparred our teacher would attack keeping in his mind what he himself would do to defend. The circle six parry would always frustrate whatever strategy he devised. Another friend had to tell him, “Dude, you got this. It doesn’t matter what you do he will always parry circle six.”

The mind can overthink things and try to counter events that will never really happen. Realize the opponent you are facing and face it; don’t let your fear render you helpless in a thousand imagined ills.

There was so much I could learn from him. Unfortunately, I will no longer be able to take lessons from this old soldier. I will miss you. RIP Brave Lion.

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