List Makers

Americans are obsessed with observable, trackable progress. I’ve noted this for many years in martial arts. For any of you familiar with martial arts you probably know that the system of ranking by colored belts is an American invention. In fact, since I started practicing twenty years ago, the number of belts has increased while the time required between them has decreased. When I started most schools recognized white, yellow, green, blue, brown, and black belts, and there was generally anywhere from three to six months between tests. This time increased the higher you went, so you might wait three months to test from white to yellow, but a year to test from brown to black.  Today I know of many schools that recognize white, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, red, brown, and black belts, and some schools require less than a month to test from one belt to the next.

This is not what martial arts used to be. I briefly attended one school in Virginia Beach that used an archaic Japanese ranking system. When I started the first thing the instructor told me was that I had to understand that there were no belts in his class. I was a student until he told me to go start a school, at which point I would be an instructor. I had senior students (everyone else in the class), and I was the most junior student. Outside of this there were no ranks, tests, or obvious format of progression. I loved this system, and if I hadn’t moved away, I’d probably still be studying there.

I mention this because it is symptomatic of a much deeper problem in American culture: we want to be in control. Whether it is making a bucket list for the week/month/year, making a detailed list of short/long term goals, or making a list of qualities that we want to see in a spouse, we like to try to control our lives and the world around us. I’m not saying that having a list of goals or desires is a bad thing. It can help keep you on track, help you focus, and help you say no when you need to say no. I have a short list of long term goals that I’m working towards (I’ve posted this before). I have a short list of things that I’m looking for in a future spouse:

1) I want a wife who is a committed Christian with a visible desire to grow closer to Christ.

2) I want a wife who is intelligent and capable of carrying on an interesting conversation.

3) I want a wife who is kind-hearted and compassionate: who consistently puts others before herself.

4) I want a wife who is beautiful to me and to whom I am physically attracted.

5) I want a wife who is between 5 and 11 years younger than me (6-10 ideally, with 8-10 being the real ‘sweet spot’). Right now I’m actively against dating anyone who is more than 11 years younger than I am, simply because it’s been a habit that lead to very painful results in the past.

6) I want a wife who desires me and is willing to pursue me as hard as I pursue her.

7) I want a wife who is a virgin.

I know that I want these things, and I ask God to bring this woman into my life on a regular basis. However, in all of our planning and list-making we often forget one very important detail: we aren’t in control. My life is not my own, it belong to Christ and he can do with this life whatever he desires. God does give us the desires of our heart, but sometimes they don’t look the way we want them to, sometimes he asks us to do insane things, and sometimes he puts us through the ringer before granting those desires. If you don’t believe me, then read Isaiah 19-20, where God makes the prophet walk around naked for three years. Or read Ezekiel, where God makes the prophet lie on his side for a year and a half eating only bread cooked over dung. Or read Jonah, where God makes the prophet go and preach to the people who have oppressed, terrorized, and slaughtered his people for years. Or read Hoshea, where God makes the prophet marry a prostitute and accept children that are most likely not his own. Or read the gospels, where the father commands the son to suffer, die, and pay for sins that are not his own.

We don’t get to control our lives. This is true of everyone, the control that we are looking for is an illusion we create in the hopes of protecting ourselves from fear. However, in the Christian it should be especially true because we actively give up control over our own lives when we choose to follow Christ. Our purpose and highest goal is to glorify him in everything, and that should trump every other desire or goal that we have. Because of this all of my life-goals, all of my desires for a wife, everything that I could list out and say ‘this is what I want’ is negotiable. My will is to be subsumed in Christ, and anyone who thinks that Ezekiel wanted to lie on his side for a year and a half eating dung-bread hasn’t actually read the book. Ezekiel talked God down from making him eat bread cooked over human dung (bargaining with God anyone?), Christ begged God to ‘let this cup pass’ from him. We don’t see these kinds of objections recorded in Isaiah or Hoshea, but it isn’t difficult to imagine the difficulty the prophets had obeying the commands of God.

We must relinquish our need for control in our own lives and in the lives of others and learn to accept the things that God chooses for us. This is the path to true happiness, and this is the path to greater, truer, and more meaningful relationship with God.

I Have No Idea What the Hell I’m Doing

Seriously! When it comes to life, to women, to goals, to the future… honestly the only thing that I seem to be good at is analyzing things. I’m good at understanding and breaking down complex ideas. I’m a pretty smart guy, and I’m also fairly good at teaching. I can help students understand things that they don’t even begin to grasp, and I’m pretty decent at martial arts. However, when it comes to life… to actual relationships… to money and all the things that really, truly matter I think I’m pretty much hopeless. I was finally introduced to that young woman in my martial arts class this afternoon, and she promptly told me that she isn’t looking to date anyone right now. I’m disappointed, but she also told me that she’d let me know what she was… I don’t know how seriously to take that. I really don’t know whether to think that she was serious or that it was a kind brush-off.

I’m honestly not sure that it really matters. I mean, there’s a reason that I’m 32 and single, but it would have been nice if she’d been interested. Honestly, I’m doing fairly well at the moment. I’m actually feeling good about everything. Focusing on God the last few days has really helped me keep my perspective, and I’m pretty happy with life at the moment. Even though everything’s kind of hard right now. I don’t have much work this week, and I don’t have much money either. Every girl I’ve contacted on eHarmony has ignored me, and every girl I’ve asked out otherwise has turned me down flat. I’ve got a few students who are fairly upset with how difficult I am, and they are being very vocal about it. I’ve also injured myself repeatedly, which is making Aikido that much harder, and most of the exercises that I prefer impossible.

All in all, given everything that’s going on, I’ve had a pretty good weekend and I plan to enjoy the rest of my week as well. God is awesome in all things and I’m going to trust him in all things. That being said, I’m still pretty bad at life. I try to play to my strengths, but that never seems to go very well. Here’s the thing, people keep telling me that it’s not me, that I shouldn’t blame myself, so on and so forth. I read a study recently that said that failing between 5 and 7 times is good for you. It makes the successes more worthwhile and everything that much better. I can’t imagine that years of repeated failure does the same. After a while it becomes difficult to see it as anything but your fault. Still, maybe it isn’t me… maybe it’s something else entirely. The fact remains that I still seem to be pretty bad at life in general.

Well, now I’m all depressed. I’m going to go spend some time with God so that I can get back to having a good week.

P.S. Ultimately, God’s love is greater than I can comprehend. After a little time with him I’m feeling pretty good again. He’s loved me even in my worst times, and he knows all my secrets. Still, he loves me anyway. I don’t think I could ask for more.

The Way of Breaking Glass

In martial arts there are many ‘ways’. Aikido means ‘The Way of the Harmonious Spirit’, Karatedo means ‘The Way of the Empty Hand’, Tae Kwon Do means ‘The Way of Fist and Foot’, Kendo means ‘The Way of the Sword’, Tang Soo Do means ‘The Way of the Chinese Hand’, Judo means ‘The Gentle Way’, Kuntai means ‘The Way of the Fist’, Ninjutsu means ‘The Way of Stealth’, etc. Obviously there are many martial arts that don’t include ‘way’ in the name, but each includes it’s own philosophy or fundamental concept. Of course, we all have a philosophy of life as well which might also be described as a ‘way’, and every culture has a philosophical underlay that might be described as a ‘way’.

The title of this post is, I think, the best way to describe the underlying philosophy of American culture for the past three or so generations. Just like the names of many of the above martial arts, I chose this name for a specific purpose. Just like glass the philosophy of American culture emphasizes appearances over strength or usefulness. American culture develops people that generally look good, but are very fragile. In part this is because we emphasize self-esteem over confidence. As a culture we have convinced ourselves that self-esteem is the most important part of human development. However, self-esteem is based on our view of ourselves in comparison to others. We build our self-esteem by being ‘better’ that someone else.

I am reminded of a woman I passed in the park perhaps a year ago. This was a minor incident, but one that has stuck in my mind. This woman was walking with her child, trying to reassure him because he wasn’t doing well in math. The boy was suitably distraught, feeling that he was dumb and worthless, but the mother, instead of guiding him to areas in which he excelled, consoling him that math wasn’t the end all and be all of everything, or explaining to him that our worth doesn’t come from our appearance or abilities, exclaimed the he was the ‘smartest fifth grader in the world!’ A claim that obviously wasn’t true, even to the boy himself. Instead of actually reassuring her son that perhaps he didn’t have to be the best in math, the woman propped up a demonstrably false and very fragile image of excellence. We train ourselves to ‘look like the best’, instead of understanding that being ‘my’ best at something doesn’t necessarily mean being ‘the’ best as something.

Similarly, like broken glass, Americans are full of sharp edges. In general we are fragile, easily broken, and very quick to hurt others in order to boost our own self-images. In focusing so heavily on appearances we have developed into a culture filled with insecure people who look good, but have very little to offer. We have to be right, we have to be the best, we have to excel, and if anyone tells us that we aren’t or don’t then we accuse them of jealousy, bigotry, targeting us, or any number of other horrible things. We seek out people that are weaker, dumber, poorer, uglier, or in some other way ‘less’ than ourselves, and trade the ability to actually ‘get’ better for the questionable boon of spending time with people who make us look good. There is nothing wrong with taking the time to actually help others, but there is something wrong with avoiding the chance to be better in order to avoid looking worse.

I use the word ‘breaking’ instead of the word ‘broken’ to emphasize the continual nature of this insecurity. We are continually breaking and repairing our images, continually hurting others to rebuild our own broken pride. I have used the term ‘we’ throughout this post because, while I’ve been the recipient of immature, insecure behavior plenty of times, I’ve also dished it out plenty of times. I recognize this way in my own life and, while I’m trying to change it, I’ve been seeing lately how much work I have left to do.

I’ve come a long way over the past decade, but I have so much farther to go that sometimes the distance simply staggers me. I am consistently amazed by God’s patience, love, and intent in my life, and eternally thankful for the time that he has and is putting into me.

A Right View of Oneself

I think I’ve mentioned before that I do martial arts as a hobby, and help teach an Aikido-Jujitsu class. I really enjoy this, though I’m not the best fighter in the world… or probably in the state, but I practice because it’s a lot of fun. I’m a fairly big guy, so I’m used to being the biggest, strongest person in the class, and being the toughest person in the class. I have to say that this always makes me feel good about myself, and there are times where I have to work hard not to be a bully (it’s a natural inclination of mine). Last week a new student started in the class. A guy who’s a little bigger and a lot stronger than me, and a lot of the simple things that work on people just don’t work on him (he doesn’t feel most of his pressure points). He’s a really nice guy, but he makes me feel inferior. In a real fight I might be able to take him… might being the key word. There’s a part of me that would like to find out honestly.

Then there’s the part of me that only wants to be around people weaker, dumber, less perceptive than myself. People that I can feel superior to. I am a prideful man, though I think I’m a lot less prideful than I used to be, and it’s something that I’m continually working on. This new student (…honestly, I haven’t had a chance to learn his name yet), we’ll call him Bill, is someone that I can definitely practice on. He’s offered to teach me some Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, an art that I’m not hugely fond of… mostly because I don’t really like ground-fighting, but I think it would be a good opportunity both to expand my martial skills and to intentionally practice humility. 

That being said, I go back to the verse in Romans 12:3. If I convince myself that only people weaker than me are worth spending time with, then I’m not likely to have a right view of myself. Spending most of my time with people that I can make myself feel superior to is a way to boost my self-esteem (i.e. pride), but not a good way to boost my confidence or a good way to have a right view of myself.

Something that I need to, and have been, making an effort to do is to spend time with people who are better than I am at things that I love to do. People who are smarter than me, people that are better fighters than me, people who are more spiritual than me.  I need to seek out ways to make myself better, instead of seeking out people who make me feel better. This is a hard thing to do.