When I was a 10-year-old green belt, there was a slightly older boy in my Taekwondo class whom I’ll call Arnold. A red belt, Arnold was the senior student in the children’s class at my instructor’s recently-opened dojahng. When we travelled out of state for tournaments, the children in the group would share a hotel room. With no adult supervision, the dynamic was reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. Arnold quickly asserted his rank. He dictated who would sleep on the floor and who got the beds. (He always got a bed.) He demanded strict obedience to his every command, and meted out pushups as punishment for any failure to comply. On each trip, he chose one student as the target of his incessant bullying, requiring that student to sleep in the bathtub and constantly reminding his victim and the rest of us that he was our senior in rank.
We all feared Arnold, but we did not respect him. We called him “Sir” and did the pushups as ordered. And in Arnold’s mind, this was proof that he was respected. But saying, “Yes, Sir!” is not a magical incantation. True respect is earned, and he had earned only our loathing.
It will not surprise you to learn that Arnold is no longer training. He abandoned Taekwondo as a twelve-year-old second degree black belt. When I ran into him in the halls of our junior high school in the subsequent years, he never hesitated to stop me and say, “Just remember that I was the first black belt.” With this reminder, he tried to demand my respect though he had done nothing to merit it.
By the time we were in high school, I was a third degree black belt and a certified instructor. One day, as I exited the high school building, I felt myself enveloped in a bear hug from behind and heard a familiar voice in my ear: “Just remember that I was the first black belt.” I instinctively flipped Arnold over my shoulder, dropping him on his back on the concrete. He stood up, brushed himself off, and offered me his hand. After we shook hands, he walked away without the usual arrogance in his stride. In a language he clearly understood, I had earned his respect without saying a word.
Of course, physical dominance is not the only, or even the best, way to earn respect. The point is simply that we gain respect by our deeds and not by demanding it. By assuming that his rank alone made him worthy of respect, Arnold ignored Confucius’ teaching: “One should not be concerned at lack of position, but should be concerned about what will fit him to occupy it.”
In the dojahng, the external manifestations of respect are everywhere: Students bow to each other, call their instructor “Sir” or “Ma’am,” refer to black belts by their last name. To a beginning student, these rituals are alien and often cause discomfort. One reason for this discomfort is that when you first begin training, these trappings of respect are mere gestures unaccompanied by sincere feeling. You do not know your instructor or your fellow students, so your respect for them may feel superficial at best.
But after you have been training for a time, something changes. In part, the repeated ritual of bowing, shaking hands, and saying, “Thank you, Sir” or “Yes, Ma’am” begins to translate into genuine respect. Dr. Paul Ekman, a psychologist at the University of California at San Francisco, has shown that smiling can actually make you feel happier--but only if it’s a real smile, the kind that produces crow’s feet wrinkles around the eyes. Similarly, the act of truly showing respect can make you respectful. More importantly, however, you begin to respect your instructors and your fellow students because as you get to know them, you come to feel that they deserve it.
When I teach children the meaning of respect, I typically define it as the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated. This is a fairly obvious formulation. And if you follow it, then others will reciprocate by respecting you. But the Golden Rule describes only one aspect of respect: Respect for others. I believe that the values of the martial arts have application in every realm of your life. Respect, in my view, includes not only respect for others but also respect for yourself and for your environment.
Respect for Others
Respecting others requires you to recognize their humanity at all times. This is not always as easy at it may sound. When I was a public defender, I often represented people who had committed thoughtless and even reprehensible acts. Whether they had stolen a car, struck their spouse, or responded to a very real provocation with unnecessarily lethal force, they had acted without respect for others. And many felt that they, in turn, deserved no respect. In the eyes of many, the people at my side were defined by their worst behavior.
This may seem to you to be perfectly reasonable. Surely a thief, a wife-batterer or a murderer has not earned our respect. But my job as their attorney was to recognize that people are more than the sum of their worst moments. My duty was to empathize even with people whose lives, conduct and instincts were remote from my personal experience. My responsibility was to see the people behind the rap sheets.
And so I learned that the car thief had grown up in foster care because his parents were abusive alcoholics, and that after he had eventually “emancipated” from the foster care system when he was an 18-year-old with no legal parents, he had become homeless and an alcoholic himself. I learned that the domestic abuser had overcome a years-long dependence on methamphetamine and now travelled throughout the state establishing drug treatment programs. I discovered that the homicide defendant had been in two serious car accidents that had left him with severe skull and brain injuries.
The details that I collected about my clients’ lives did not always excuse their behavior. That is not the point. The point is that they were not just thieves or batterers or killers, but also people. They may have deserved condemnation for their conduct. But they still were worthy of respect.
When we appeared in court, the judge, the prosecutor and very often the court staff radiated disdain for these clients. I recall sitting beside a client during trial one morning when the prosecutor entered the room. “Good morning,” my client said to the prosecutor. “How are you today?” The prosecutor, barely glancing in my client’s direction, said nothing. When I conveyed to a judge a pregnant client’s concern that the jail was not providing her with sufficient pre-natal care, the judge was dismissive. I represented a Mexican juvenile whose parents had sent him at age seventeen to live with his uncle in the United States in order to earn money for the family. When I asked a judge to allow him to make a collect call from the jail to his mother, the judge was reluctant.
These clients may have committed crimes. (Not all of them were guilty, of course, and in almost every case they had not yet been convicted of any crime and were still legally presumed innocent when they were spurned or scorned in court.) But that conduct did not negate their humanity. To return a morning greeting, to show concern for the medical well-being of a pregnant woman and her unborn child, to feel sadness at the loneliness of a young man far from home--all of these gestures of respect come easily when you see the other person as a human being. The challenge is to see the humanity even in people who are different from us or who have deviated from our (often perfectly legitimate) expectations in some way.
Of course, every judge expected to be addressed as “Your Honor.” The judges who interrupted my colleagues and me in mid-argument and derided our clients were the quickest to threaten us with contempt if they felt they were not being respected. Like Arnold, they felt their positions alone entitled them to respect despite their disrespectful behavior from the bench. And like Arnold, they assumed respect was a one-way street, with all traffic flowing uphill toward the person with the highest rank.
Taekwondo students begin each class by reciting an oath. One of our promises is to live with “respect for my juniors and seniors.” Our juniors may be lower-ranked martial artists. But they also are subordinates at work, our children, and people at the margins of society. When a homeless person asks for money and you walk by without looking at him, you are failing to respect your juniors. Whether or not you choose to reach into your pocket for some change, respect simply means acknowledging his humanity, looking him in the eye and speaking to him as a person.
Arnold and the judges and prosecutors whom I have been describing did not show respect for their juniors. So it is unsurprising that their juniors did not respect them. We may have called them “Sir” or “Your Honor” but we did so grudgingly and there was no sincerity in the gesture. On the other hand, even when I was a nine-year-old white belt, my Taekwondo instructor treated me with respect. He was my neighbor and often drove me home after class. During these twenty-minute drives, he would talk to me about whatever subject I chose, always listening to what I had to say and responding thoughtfully. After twenty-five years as his student, I now consider him a close friend. But even when we are having dinner with our wives, I cannot bring myself to address him by his first name. He remains at all times “Senior Master Thor.” Without demanding it, he has earned my respect.
I have already touched on some of the ways that we show respect for our juniors and seniors in the dojahng. But there is more to respect than bowing and saying “Sir” or “Ma’am.” Respect should permeate everything we do on the mat. We respect our partners’ need to develop their skills when we hold targets in a stable position. We respect our fellow students’ desire to learn when we sit quietly and avoid distracting them during class. We respect our instructors when we listen carefully to their explanations and respond quickly to their requests. We respect one another’s accomplishments when we applaud enthusiastically after a fellow student demonstrates his or her form for the class.
When we free spar or practice one-step sparring, we behave respectfully by controlling our kicks and strikes so that we do not harm our partners. We also show respect by acknowledging our partners’ points. Have you ever been in a sparring match and felt that every time you scored on your partner, he or she pushed forward without any apparent recognition of the point? You may have become frustrated and, without consciously deciding to do so, increased the intensity of your contact in order to generate a response. Your partner (again, only semi-consciously) probably responded in kind, so that the match soon became unfriendly and potentially dangerous. This escalating cycle of contact grew from your unarticulated feeling that your partner failed to show you the respect you earned.
I am not suggesting that every time your partner scores on you, you should stop sparring and congratulate him or her. Such behavior would develop a habit that would not serve you well in a real-world self-defense situation. It is important to train yourself to continue fighting after you have been hit, and also to continue defending yourself even after you have scored an effective blow. (Nor am I advising you to highlight your partner’s points during a competitive sparring match. It is not your job to signal to the judges when your partner has scored.) But in training sessions, to ensure safety and promote mutual respect, you should acknowledge your partner’s points with a quick “Nice point, Ma’am” or a nod of your head as you continue your counter-attack. This not only shows respect for your partner, but by ensuring that the sparring match does not become dangerous to either one of you, it shows respect for yourself.
Respect for Yourself
Self-respect can be even more difficult than respecting others. It requires you not only to take good care of your body but also to be alert to your unspoken physical and emotional needs.
Physical self-respect is fairly straightforward. Do you stretch before training in order to avoid pulling a muscle? Do you run or bike or hike regularly to develop cardiovascular fitness? And do you listen to the signals your body sends you? If you have an injury and continue training at full intensity rather than allowing it to heal, then you are not respecting yourself. If you have chronic back pain, then self-respect can mean visiting a doctor or making sure your workstation is ergonomic, or even making lifestyle changes to reduce the stress that is creating muscle tension.
Physical self-respect includes nutrition. If your diet is full of trans-fats and refined carbohydrates, or if you are drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, then you are not treating your body with respect. And do you listen to your body when it comes to food? My wife is a vegetarian, but I regularly experience intense cravings for meat. I have not yet found another protein source that satisfies that craving. So I remain a carnivore, and I try to alleviate my environmental and ethical misgivings by seeking meet that has been produced locally and relatively humanely.
On the other hand, I am not so good at listening to my body about mealtimes. I often will become so engrossed in my work that I will ignore my growing hunger and forget to eat lunch until the late afternoon. Eating at regular intervals fortifies me for the work I need to do, so I know that I must pay more attention to my body and eat when I am hungry.
Emotional self-respect is more difficult. And again, it is critical that you be alert to your needs. Inertia is the enemy of self-respect. When we are in an unhappy relationship or an unsatisfying job, it is not always easy to even recognize our malaise. We are so absorbed in our daily routine that we do not reflect on whether it is rewarding. Or we are so committed to the view that we have the perfect marriage or the ideal career that we shut out any facts that challenge that view. We coast along, superficially satisfied, but with a growing subterranean psychic discontent.
Friends used to ask me, “How long do you plan to work as a public defender?” I would respond, “Until I stop loving the work.” Unfortunately, when I stopped loving my job, I did not immediately notice. I had become increasingly focused on running my dojahng and developing my nonprofit organization. My clients received a diminishing share of my time and attention. I prepared for hearings at the last possible minute. Although I had always enjoyed being in front of a jury more than any other part of my job, I began to avoid scheduling trials because I knew the necessary preparations would take me away from the dojahng. But I continued to tell myself that I loved my job. When someone finally asked me if I was sure that was still true, I realized I had not been fully invested in my work as a lawyer for nearly a year. I suddenly recognized the gnawing guilt that I constantly felt, which came from the knowledge that by leaving the office every day at five o’clock sharp in order to teach Taekwondo, I was not doing all I could for my clients.
Once I became aware of my unhappiness, continued inertia became impossible. Within a few months I had left the public defender office. Almost instantly, I felt happier and more relaxed. With more time and emotional energy to devote to my wife, our relationship became even stronger. My students and their parents began to comment that I was teaching better classes. And my nonprofit organization began to grow and serve increasing numbers of at-risk children.
The lesson is that self-respect requires introspection. We sometimes need a pause, a moment of detachment, to allow us to notice what we are feeling. For some, meditation provides that pause. Others find it in therapy, or over a pint of beer with a close friend. The important thing is to overcome the inertia, observe your feelings, and then take action.
Respect for Your Environment
Every martial arts student is taught to bow upon entering the training floor. When I had been training for a few months, I remember that I began to instinctively bow as I entered random rooms like my parents’ living room or the elementary school cafeteria. I usually would catch myself in mid-bow and laugh to myself, or even blush a little if I thought someone had seen me.
And yet the impulse is not entirely silly. The bow represents respect for our environment. We bow upon stepping onto the mat because we recognize that the training floor is a special space. The bow focuses our mind on that fact, so that we can approach our training with seriousness and discipline. It provides the pause, the moment of reflection, that I described above.
Respect for our environment requires that same awareness. When I see a desk cluttered with paperwork and unopened mail, I know that the person who works there is not alert to his surroundings. He probably doesn’t even realize how much the mess in his office is causing internal disorder. But if he were to notice his surroundings and cultivate a serene work environment, he almost certainly would be surprised by how much more relaxed he became. And that relaxation would enhance his concentration and enable him to work more efficiently.
One of my favorite high school teachers once leaned forward in her desk and shattered the quiet in the classroom by shouting, “Pay attention! A leaf just fell off a tree and you missed it!” She was teaching a Zen lesson: Be present. And if you are present, if you pay attention to your surroundings, then respect for those surroundings comes naturally.
My father understands this intuitively. A New York native, he has lived in the mountains of northern New Mexico for 35 years. Yet his appreciation of his environment never diminishes. He hikes daily and continues to discover new trails and vistas within miles of his home. When I call him from San Francisco, he regularly treats me to an awed description of that evening’s sunset. He is alert to his surroundings.
There are others in my hometown with less awareness of their environment, and therefore less respect for it. They throw empty beer cans along the side of dirt roads, sullying the desert landscape. They toss their cigarette butts among the sagebrush on the mesa. If they accompanied my father on one of his daily hikes, do you think they could possibly treat their environment with such cavalier disrespect?
Respect, then, is more than the Golden Rule. It is awareness: Awareness of the humanity in other people, awareness of our physical and emotional needs, and awareness of the beauty that surrounds us.