heart & jiu jitsu, I fell in love with you
lost control, the way a fool would do, gladly
When I was in high school, my whole world was about studying and getting into a good college. With each good grade I received, I would feel elated and be in a good mood. With each setback I endured, I would feel the crushing weight of hopelessness and depression.
I know now the pitfalls of putting your entire identity on the success of one single thing. Granted, in high school, I didn’t know any better, but as I matured, I found myself still unable to step away from this habit that I cultivated for so many years. When I found martial arts, it quickly took over as one of the most important activities in my college life. All my friends were in Karate. I organized my class schedule around the club activities. I became and served as its most dedicated member.
Any activity in which you give yourself fully into will have its benefits. It will give you a lot of chances to feel good about yourself and consistently feed you dopamine. Yet as the cliche saying goes, putting all of your eggs — or in this case, your ego — in one basket can be a dangerous prospect.
This is why whenever I see people whose entire personas and interests are about jiu jitsu, it scares me a little. And let’s be clear: it scares me because I see myself sometimes falling into that same trap. I had thoughts in my jiu jitsu career if that I could just win enough tournaments and spend tons of time at the gym, I would somehow gain the self-respect and confidence that I was craving. On the days that I don’t train, I sometimes feel lost. The pandemic really drove that hard nail into me.
We don’t talk about this enough, but jiu jitsu can be a highly addictive activity. For many of us, it is an intensely physical enterprise that, at some point, goes beyond just merely having fun and stress relief, and morphs into an insatiable being that has a mind (and stomach) of its own. This monster wants to binge jiu jitsu and it doesn’t care if it becomes sick, boring, injured, or lonely in the process. This monster lies to itself and says that jiu jitsu teaches us important life lessons, and so, we must sacrifice in order to serve it.
I cannot claim to be above the temptations of this addiction. I love the way jiu jitsu makes me feel — even in its most painful moments — because at least, I’m feeling something instead of being dead inside. I think jiu jitsu people are some of the best people, ever, because they understand resilience in the face of failure and resolution in the face of challenge. I love the way my spats do the hard work of expression for me when I’m on the mat, so I myself don’t have to feel too vulnerable. I love overthinking technique.
However, I’ve also seen and experienced terrible things in jiu jitsu, too. Disappointment would be putting it mildly; incorrigible rage may not be an exaggeration. Whether or not I want to admit it, jiu jitsu’s mixed experiences has shown me that the sport has flaws, and as a result, cannot be asked to perform miracles for me. Jiu jitsu will not fix a bad career, trauma, mental health challenges, lack of boundaries, or familial conflict. At best, jiu jitsu is there to serve as the medium that shows the degree to which you’ve done the hard work to find empowerment and meaning. At worst, jiu jitsu becomes an excuse. And I can say that, because I learned the hard way.
When I made jiu jitsu the biggest part of my identity, I found that I closed myself off to different opportunities. I did it because I had worked myself into a trap where my identity was my sole source of meaning, and so I couldn’t possibly let the thought of anything else get in that way. It was a simplistic sort of thinking that also felt safe.
If I was only a jiu jitsu athlete and nothing else to the world, then I would not have to do the hard work of learning to take up space, to love myself, and to accept my faults. I would not have to confront my true self, which was beyond just an athlete or even a martial artist. I would not have to acknowledge that I was human.
I only needed to fulfill the checklist of requirements in order to be something,
but I could never be someone.
This past week, I attended a performance of Hamilton and experienced amazing talent on the stage. I’m sure more than one person in the company had someone who told them that they could never hack it in Broadway, and that their dedication to the craft as an utter waste of time. This piece is not that message.
I recognize that those singer/actors/dancers on the stage were playing a character that would only be possible because they had already embraced the truest parts of themselves. They made the character come alive not because they were the fiction, but instead, the reality, namely the sum of their life experiences and lessons which could bring true emotion to the stage. In the same way, I write this piece to remind all of you — to remind myself — that to set out to be a martial artist, an athlete, or an influencer is folly.
What you should set out first and foremost is to live your own story and let that experience shine through when it’s your turn to sing.