Too Much Pride Can Be a Dangerous Thing

Recently I watched two of my young high school students, boys, as it happens, try to engage in a fistfight in the middle of the classroom. Ironically enough, they were fighting about, of all things, which of the two knew more about what a real fight was: neither of them, as it turned out.

Not so surprising, in a fifteen-year-old. And although the student desk that came between them prevented the landing of actual blows before I could insert myself bodily into their midst and stop the whole thing, the real damage had been done—to their educational futures within the walls of our school building.

But the immediate consequences for these two young men, while critical, struck me as less significant than the fact that they were willing to risk those consequences for the sake of pride—and in this case pride in something of which they were both so ignorant (their personal knowledge of what real fighting was)as to be resolutely unaware of how utterly ignorant of the subject they really were. They were piling ignorance upon ignorance.

Even granting a certain leeway in the nurturing of young boys’ images of themselves as self-sufficient individuals who can handle themselves in a dicey situation, I find it incumbent upon myself as a public-school educator and professional Taekwondo instructor to disabuse them of this idea that deluding oneself about who is the toughest guy on the block is a question of honor.

Self-serving pride, yes, but honor, no.

The trick is to recognize the difference. But how do you tell?

Honor is a matter of adhering to one’s principles.

Pride is a matter of defending one’s ego.

I can illustrate the difference with a story, but first we need to examine why understanding the difference is so important.
Leaving aside for a moment the endless debates that some individuals (who would rather talk than train hard) like to indulge in regarding which martial art style is superior to which martial art style, and whether non-contact or full-contact training is more practical, we can start with one fact as a given: Taekwondo skills can pose a danger to others in any number of ways.
Indeed, the art makes a conscious study of an aggressor’s physical vital points as targets. A middle-punch landed on the solar plexus can collapse the diaphragm and leave your attacker gasping for air. A well-aimed side-kick has the power to shred knee ligaments. Throats are vulnerable to any number of offensive techniques: knife-hand strike, palm-heel strike, straight punch, front kick; the list goes on.

That all sounds deadly enough, and the arrested-adolescents among us will find it extremely motivating to imagine themselves executing these techniques in James Bond-like fashion as they go through life battling the forces of evil in one fantastic scenario after another.

Be that as it may, and as critical as that sounds, it cannot be denied that the practice and development of Taekwondo skills in some sense invites, and even requires, this kind of speculation in the technical analysis of their destructive potential. And in truth, almost everyone will find themselves susceptible to this sort of daydreaming, at least momentarily, at some point or another.

Well, most of the boys will, anyway.

Never to expand one’s awareness beyond such self-indulgent reflection is a matter of ego.

To acknowledge the destructive dimensions of taekwondo skills as a way of reinforcing the need to exercise strict moral limits on their use is a matter of honor.

In the modern world the situation has somehow become even more complex.

As a purely practical matter, it is every responsible instructor’s obligation to make his students aware that while it is necessary to develop a realistic assessment of the potential physical consequences that might result from using Taekwondo skills in self-defense, it is perhaps even more important to assess the social consequences as well.

In our litigious society, the line between aggressor and defender can become blurred and even reversed during dissection in the calm of the courtroom, particularly in the absence of impartial eyewitnesses. In some cases, the blurring can become even more pronounced—in the court of public opinion. A good example of just how difficult it can be to assess these realities is the recent incident in Florida that resulted in the killing of teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, who is claiming self-defense.

To those who would argue that it is situations like the Florida incident that should compel one to forget about physical self-defense, lest you wind up being prosecuted as the aggressor, I would propose a different point of view. (Let me emphasize here that I offer the Florida case only by way of illustrating the confusion that can result, and intend no judgment one way or the other on the facts of that case.)

As I see it, it is precisely the acquisition and development of Taekwondo skills that can afford the serious student the awareness that will protect him or her from ever letting a situation like George Zimmerman’s escalate to the point where it can become the nightmare for all parties that that situation clearly has.

It does so by making its students aware that it is their self-serving pride that is the real danger.

This sounds as though I am discouraging my students from taking any pride whatsoever in the hundreds of hours of sweat and effort they have poured into developing their Taekwondo skills. On the contrary. What I want my students to realize is that as their skills grow, so must their sense of humility grow with regard to the destructive potential of those skills. From that burgeoning sense of humility can arise a growing awareness of our responsibility to those around us.

In order for your sense of humility to grow, you need something to be humble about.

To my students, then, I say value your skill. Make no denials about its destructive capacity. On the purely physical level, relish your abilities. Give yourselves up to the joys of execution. Treasure the changes in your health and conditioning. But be careful.

I offer the following story by way of illustration.

As I was driving to the dojang one day last summer to open for evening classes, I took my usual route through residential back streets with their 25-mile-per-hour speed limits. I find the lack of the usual urban desperation to arrive at one’s destination calming, and it helps to put me in a properly meditative frame of mind for teaching.

As I came to the last stoplight before turning onto Fairview Ave, a well-dented, unwashed little pickup truck of foreign manufacture came abreast of me in the left-hand turn lane. I gradually became aware that the driver of this vehicle, which came to a stop a little forward of my own car, was staring at me through his back window. He stared so uninterruptedly that I decided he must have something he needed to say to me.

As it turned out, I was right.

I pulled ahead and rolled down my window, noticing that all of his windows were already down, it being about 98° out, leading me to conclude that here was a hot man in a dirty T-shirt who was probably on his way home from an outside job and in a hurry to get inside somewhere cooler than the front seat of his non-air-conditioned pickup truck.

What he had to say to me was this: “You drive like a girl.”

This was a grown man.

I was so surprised, and reminded so strongly of the adolescent behavior of my fist-fighting high school students, that I laughed out loud.

Probably not the reaction he was looking for. I now realized that this young man’s intent was to intimidate me. I mustered a more reasoned response. “The speed limit on this street is 25 miles an hour. There are kids on this street.”

Reason made no impression on the man. “Well you jus’ keep drivin’ 25. You just keep drivin’ like a girl.”
This last was delivered with a sneer.

I waved him off. “If you say so,” I finally replied, and made my right turn.

I have to admit, as I reflected on this incident, and as I recounted it for my students in class that evening, I began to suspect that I was more guilty of pride in my narration than I was humbly satisfied in the mildness of my reaction.

Nevertheless, I consider it something of a marvel that after 30+ years of training in a fighting art, I found myself genuinely unchallenged on a personal level by this grown man’s accusation, and I assert it here as proof of what I have sought to illustrate: you should take pride in your achievements; just don’t be too proud of yourself.

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