One day I had one of those realizations that kind of hit you in the face and seem so obvious you can’t figure out why you never thought about it before.
I was just going along minding my own business, working out, playing with other martial artists and thinking macho thoughts – you know, lifting heavy objects, arm wrestling, hurling logs. I’m joking of course, but not by much.
Then suddenly I was pregnant. And even more shockingly, there were all these other pregnant women around me who I had never noticed before. And kids. Kids everywhere, little ones, really little ones, jabbering away, distracting everyone around them, completely helpless but for the guiding hands and words of their ever-alert parents.
It was like I had happened on this alternate universe that was right in front of me, yet somehow mostly invisible.
I felt more vulnerable in the early days of new motherhood than I had since I was a bully-magnet in elementary school and junior high. Coming from twenty-some-odd years of martial arts training that included days and nights outdoors on various terrains and found or improvised weapons, this was more shocking than jumping into ice cold water (we did that too). It seemed odd that while preparing myself for anything, motherhood should be my downfall.
Suddenly my training didn’t exactly apply. I was sleep deprived, weak from months of nausea that kept me out of the gym and was now entirely distracted by my complete and unremitting responsibility to this tiny, fragile, new person.
I searched my martial arts databanks. When had we covered running away from danger with a stroller in tow? How was I to fight with a baby attached to me? What were the answers to any number of extremely disturbing scenarios?
I was shocked that I had dedicated my life to the art of fortitude, problem solving and self-preservation and had missed such crucial, normal, every-day reference points. Didn’t lots of people have kids? Injuries? Extenuating circumstances?
Martial arts and self-defense classes are filled with people who are naturally inclined towards physical fitness and assertiveness. Type A personalities abound. Workouts don’t include kids screaming, or the many bags we carry, heavy, restrictive winter clothing, high heeled shoes, uneven terrain, cars, bicycles, bookshelves or glass vases.
We just seem to overlook the fact that self-defense class in a room is not terribly applicable to real life. And those of us who train in reality-based martial arts, outside or on obstacle courses are often even quicker to assume we have all the answers.
In addition, those who claim an interest in martial arts or self defense classes often have pretty specific reasons, many of which don’t actually pertain to self defense. Among them: I want to be in better shape without going to a gym, I want assuage general or specific fears, I want to compete, my brother does it, and of course, ‘empowerment’, a vague yet ubiquitous term that means, “I want to feel like I can kick your ass, while never having to and not having much of an idea what that entails.”
Relatively few people actually know what self defense really means. To find yourself in a situation you’re unfamiliar with, one that could be life threatening, and to make decisions in milliseconds that could cause or delay your death or the death of another person. Even one close to you. Decisions that by default will include other people – the person or people attacking you, the people at home waiting to eat dinner with you, anyone with you at the time, and others, police officers, bystanders, perhaps a four year old boy who witnesses the incident and becomes a witness who has to relive his trauma for years just because he happened to be there. You don’t, of course, have to take all this into account. But there is more to self defense than just the one moment – a big picture that is rarely addressed and that is, in fact, necessary to the real-time application of the random kicks and punches learned in a classroom setting.
Self defense is a big subject, one that requires learning about the how, why, where and when crime happens. But we don’t. We learn about symmetrical violence, we learn to “fight”, which really is a completely different proposition that mostly involves facing someone of approximately your size and hitting each other with half power. It rarely involves a scenario in which two criminals, each of whom outweighs you by quite a bit, grab your child, corner you and whisper, “get into the car and we won’t hurt your baby.
So that’s what I thought about on my entry into this alternate universe of pregnancy and child-rearing. And I realized, there are a lot of alternate universes around us. The un-noticed universe of seniors, for example, people who go about their lives mostly unseen, except when they annoy us by driving too slowly. Or the universe of night workers, people we don’t count because we never see them. The poor universe of homeless people or those who live in shanty towns. Or the universe of people with physical differences – people who function without legs or with only one arm, without eyes or ears. Or the criminal universe, which we don’t think about except when the news forces our attention to something in the neighborhood.
Some of these alternate universes notice each other, some don’t. But you’d better believe the criminal universe notices our little family universe, because we’re walking around out there – to use a phrase from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, “like happy meals with feet.”
If you’re going to learn a martial art or self defense, you’d better consider your particular universe, otherwise you may be getting great physical health benefits along with a good helping of false empowerment.