Life Lessons From A Street Fight


Martial arts and philosophy have much to teach each other. Preparing for a street fight, which in all likelihood will never take place, is like preparing for life; the worst case scenario rarely happens, especially when we plan for it, but this does not render our preparations futile.

“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.”- Michel de Montaigne

Though we must suffer much pain on account of the evils that never transpire, the trick is to make sure that these are growing pains and not futile suffering or impotent despair. If it were not for this truth, the practice of martial arts would be rather silly; an enormous expenditure of time, blood, and sweat, likely resulting in more pain and injury than would result from all of one’s actual physical altercations combined. As it happens, however, the martial arts offer a huge variety of benefits, most of which are entirely eclipsed by the obvious ones like building confidence, health, strength, and self-discipline. While these are all very important, they simply pale in comparison to the virtues that can be obtained through proper martial arts training. The street fight is a surprisingly apt metaphor for life in general and the preparation for this unlikely event can lay the groundwork for much wisdom that is otherwise difficult to come by and hard to keep.

Anyone who has witnessed a few street fights can attest to the fact that it is nothing like the romantic version seen on the silver screen, but instead looks sloppy, frantic, and downright undignified. There is rarely a clear “winner,” and if there is, he likely has a few broken knuckles and a hospital bill to show for his triumph. The truth about fighting is far from romantic: regardless of your physique or level of skill there is simply no guarantee of success in a street fight; there is no “perfect defense” that will render you impervious to assault; rarely is a street fight a “fair” contest; one will certainly have to “take his lumps;” and there is usually no “winner” to glorify. So it goes for life as well: there is no “winning,” as none of us are getting out alive; there are no guarantees or perfect certainty to be had; there is no “perfect strategy” that will render one impervious to the slings and arrows of time; few of us retain our dignity to the end; and life will certainly not be fair or just. Much can be gained from looking at life like this. One might start feeling grateful just for being alive and having survived thus far. That is, much can be gained from thinking about death and even more gained from preparing for this unavoidable outcome.

This is where the martial arts really are a branch of philosophy, for as Cicero tells us, to philosophize is to prepare for death. Furthermore, the martial arts have the irreplaceable advantage of providing direct, visceral, bodily experiences of death, where rhetoric touches the specter of death in the opposite way.

Philosophizing is nothing other than getting ready to die. That is because study and contemplation draw our souls somewhat outside ourselves, keeping them occupied away from the body, a state which both resembles death and which forms a kind of apprenticeship for it; or perhaps it is because all the wisdom and argument in the world eventually come down to one conclusion; which is to teach us not to be afraid of dying. -Montaigne

Thus do rhetoric and martial practice compliment each other to form a complete philosophy or way of life. Oddly, whether talking about misfortunes that never transpire or the inevitable misfortune that is death, you are there for neither, for you and Death will never occupy the same instant, I assure you. So what is there to be anxious about? Well, unfortunately life also contains avoidable misfortunes that we nonetheless fail to dodge, but here again the martial arts are a wonderful palliative. It is inevitable that life will shock you, so why not choose the time and place for a painful reality check, thus dampening the intensity of all those yet to come? In this strange way, getting choked unconscious by a sparring partner can be a “near-life-experience,” to quote Tyler Durden.

1) The best defense is a good offense, which must be launched with a leap of faith in the face of uncertainty:

Many of us grow up with the fantasy that securing a black belt will allow us to calmly block and parry any attack as we dance around our befuddled attackers with smug confidence in our impenetrable defense. The truth of the matter, unfortunately, is that there is no way to cover every significant target on your body at any given time and it is a huge mistake to simply give your opponent the initiative and react to his offense with nothing but defense. As William James reminds us, “Action may not bring happiness but there is no happiness without action.” Life requires engagement and it will not suffice simply to avoid dangers or dodge shame. In a fight this means that you are going to have to throw a strike or two, which requires you to cross the no-man’s land between you, to “close the distance” with a decisive movement that must be launched without a perfect assurance of success. There are of course ways to improve your odds dramatically, but ultimately every opponent still has a “punchers chance,” and paradoxically, the untrained opponent has more of one than the trained fighter due to the unpredictable nature of his technically flawed striking. And so it is with life, as William James reminds us: “It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all. And often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true.” This leap of faith requires that one accept the possibility of defeat. “Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity,” Freud tells us, and here the martial arts can help by simply forcing us to face uncertainty and ambiguity with decisive action–a superb antidote that builds a healthy tolerance. Bruce Lee taught that to accept the inevitability of one’s death was to become liberated from it. Once we accept the things that are out of our control, we are free to concentrate on what is within our control without needless distraction. Only when we have honestly faced such things will we have true courage, which Plato tells us is “knowing what not to fear.”

2) The stupidity of self-reproach and the wisdom of pragmatism and humility

“Never yield to remorse, but at once tell yourself: remorse would simply mean adding to the first act of stupidity a second.”  The Wanderer and his Shadow. -Nietzsche

One of the best lessons that I have learned from martial arts is that self-reproach is entirely counter-productive in the world of action. It is only appropriate after the fact, in calm reflection with the aim of self-knowledge, if it is ever any use at all. When punches are whizzing past your chin it is simply a waste of time to lament any of your mistakes. Doing so would be, as Nietzsche tells us above, adding a second mistake to the first. This is not to say that one should banish all fears from ones mind along with all knowledge of one’s mistakes. Having awareness of a fear or having knowledge of a mistake are invaluable pieces of information–it is hasty judgments based on them that prove harmful. In this regard fear and self-reproach are like hallucinations. “A hallucination is a fact, not an error; what is erroneous is a judgment based upon it,” Bertrand Russell tells us. One should remain still and refrain from grasping while his fears and mistakes float past him, begging to be indulged. Placing them entirely out of mind is simply foolhardy and reckless, but indulging them with a moment of despair or self-reproach is more reckless still. One should allow all fears and all possibilities their rightful voice, but never let them control you or try to completely control them. James tells us that wisdom is knowing what to overlook, and quite often our fears and shortfalls can easily be overlooked without causing us peril, as long as we gave them a token glance.

The upside of the fact stated above about there being no perfect defense is that conversely there is always at least one opening in your opponents guard. While one should be seeking to exploit these openings, ultimately it doesn’t always matter so much that you throw the perfect strike for the situation, as long as you are doing something! Freezing with indecision is death in a street fight. ‘Analysis paralysis’ is a slow death in the fight of our lives. One of my instructors used to always say, “when in doubt…HIT!” Quite often the “wrong” strike ends up hitting a good target by accident, as Fortune, though blind, will usually favor the person who takes the initiative. No happiness without action! “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise,” William Blake tells us. This takes great humility to put into practice, however. Furthermore, quite often what one learns as the “right” technique for a given situation is not always the best solution, and thus one should always remain open to new information, ever ready to capitalize on unexpected opportunities, placing more emphasis on “what works” than on performing the “perfect” textbook maneuver. A scientific pragmatism should govern one’s training, with Occum’s razor chiseling away adipose technique each day to reveal the smooth stone edifice of practical skill. This requires great humility, as we all would ideally like to rest easy on a plateau of competence that we don’t have to question anymore.

3) The virtues of forgetting and self-overcoming

Thankfully, however, there are plateau’s of competence that can be programmed into muscle memory instead of kept in view at all times. But one cannot rely on these totally, resting on such plateaus, but instead be able to forget old but successful strategies and adapt in the moment. As in many “performance” arts like music or tennis, self-consciousness, both in the sense of being conscious of others being conscious of you and in the sense of thinking or introspecting, is actually a huge hindrance to successful execution. One must in this sense forget ones self and plunge into experience without critical thought and having had accepted the possibility of defeat, with its accompanying social shame. One may recall the line about “too many mind” in the movie “The Last Samurai.” Sometimes what we gain with experience becomes a burden that we must drop lest we become the victims of our own success. How many MMA fights have you seen in which a fighter, having just landed his signature overhand right, spends the rest of the fight in futile pursuit of that same technique, seduced and blinded by his own early success? Schopenhauer articulates this point nicely:

“Life presents itself first and foremost as a task: the task of maintaining itself, de gagner sa vie. If this task is accomplished, what has been gained is a burden, and there then appears a second task: that of doing something with it so as to ward off boredom, which hovers over every secure life like a bird of prey. Thus the first task is to gain something and the second to become unconscious of what has been gained, which is otherwise a burden.”

This truth about life applies even more aptly to fighting. Paradoxically, the more “correct” techniques that one learns, the more possibilities he must sort through before making a decision (see Hick’s Law), to say nothing of the added anxiety that is produced by the responsibility endemic to vaguely knowing the “correct answer” to each question or problem. Thus, the first task of learning how to fight becomes a burden until one accomplishes the second task, that of promptly forgetting what one has learned, forgetting ones self, and simply trusting his newly updated instincts. This second task requires that one stamp each technique into muscle memory such that they happen “all by themselves,” automatically, instead of requiring conscious thought, but yet remain flexible enough to automatically yield to a clever movement of the imagination. Conscious thought should not be banished entirely, but should be relegated to processing the holistic picture–the overview. This is a difficult balance to strike. As Ernest Becker tells us,

“Beyond a given point man is not helped by more ‘knowing,’ but only by living and doing in a partly self-forgetful way. As Goethe put it, we must plunge into experience and then reflect on the meaning of it. All reflection and no plunging drives us mad; all plunging and no reflection, and we are brutes.”

There is certainly another element of “faith” in this process, which is at the root of the promise that martial arts will give one self-confidence. It is not just that one has faith in the techniques he has learned, but that he also has faith in himself–in his ability to make certain demands of himself and see them well met. But more precisely, one must have faith that when he partly forgets himself, that his imagination, his synthetic mind as opposed to his analytic mind, will perform and see these demands well met. “I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who overcomes his enemies,” Aristotle proclaims. One quickly learns that in fighting, one is actually fighting himself much more than he is fighting his opponent. The art is to learn how to fight yourself as little as possible; to free yourself from internal conflict, which is not always solved by mere acceptance. Self-acceptance and tolerance are not the apogee of self-love. Much of life requires us to overcome ourselves, and then having succeeded, to overcome our very success. Regarding the latter, Nietzsche reminds us that “Many are stubborn in pursuit of the path they have chosen, few in pursuit of the goal.”

Once technique has become second nature, one relies much more on his whole self instead of the self of conscious reflection–one relies on his daimon or genius, which seems to come screaming into awareness from parts unknown instead of from the predictable realms of conscious deliberation. As Rollo May tells us, “to be guided by your daimon requires a fundamental humility.” In a fight one has to “let it all hang out,” to see what he is “really made of,” and essentially, to see how talented his daimon is without trying to force creativity from it with one’s critical mind, which is a fool’s errand. The daimon comes from one’s imagination, and as David Hume tells us, “It is a certain rule that wit and passion are entirely incompatible. When the affections are moved, there is no place for the imagination.” Thus, getting pissed off during a fight is usually a pretty bad idea, as you indulge your emotions instead of partitioning that precious conscious bandwidth for holistic movements of imagination. One must be humble enough to let go of that anger so that he may hear his body, his imagination, and thus experience what James calls “‘pure experience,'” which is “the name I gave to the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories.” We must keep quiet if we are to see all of this valuable material in our moments of “pure experience;” moments in which we paradoxically might find something rather peaceful about combat in the oneness of our body and mind.

4) Learning ‘care’ from violence

The same humility is required in all forms of love, in which we cannot force our whole self to feel this way or that, to be moved or swept away, but can only get out of our daimons way and see what happens.One can learn quite a lot about loving oneself by training for a fight. For example, one is very likely to learn the following truth from Schopenhauer: “The greatest of follies is to sacrifice health for any other kind of happiness.” Anyone who has trained hard has known injury, and this valuable experience helps regulate any hubris or blood-lust that might result from the routine demonstration of one’s martial prowess. One will also learn about his own aggressive drives and how his own anger, pride, and ambition are not always the monsters they are made out to be, if properly handled. As James puts it, “The world is all the richer for having a devil in it, so long as we keep our foot upon his neck.” This art of measured self-acceptance is a big component to healthy self-love. However, learning to fight teaches you even more about how to properly love other people.

If the reader will please forgive a seemingly inappropriate sexual reference, he will find a key insight about love and violence in the analysis of a curious feature of human sexuality: the “love bite.” The logic behind the love bite that often accompanies frenzied sexual passion has much less to do with domination or intimidation, although the prospect of a little fear is used to heighten awareness a little, and much more to do, paradoxically, with care. It is a demonstration of tension and frustration, as well as the willingness to inflict a little pain, but this is hardly the point. The point is to demonstrate how carefully attuned you are to the other person’s body despite one’s tension or frustration, by inflicting just enough pain to elicit some fear, but not enough to actually cause harm. This proves the connection between your souls in a way that pleasurable gestures cannot. In this principle lies the source of our pleasure in play fighting, be it with humans or with animals. When you playfully rough house with the family dog, the point isn’t to “win,” but to apply violence with such measured and careful attention to the others health that no actual harm comes to either party. It is a wonderful affirmation of the bond between owner and pet when the family pit bull gently latches on to your arm, biting down just hard enough to keep the illusion of a conflict alive, but also demonstrating his love and care for you by failing to draw blood. This kind of play is invaluable both for self-knowledge and for knowledge of the other. It is a stress test of the bonds of affection. Moreover, it gives one a visceral and immediate experience of one’s moral sentiments. Accidentally hurting the family dog, or your sparring partner, or your lover, gives one an experience of moral truth that will trump many an ethics lecture. In fact, “moral reasoning” is focused on far too much in my opinion, when the problem has much more to do with a lack of real moral experiences than with failures to reason about them.

“It is not by reason alone that wars can be prevented, but by a positive life of impulses and passions antagonistic to those that lead to war. It is the life of impulse that needs to be changed, not only the life of conscious thought.” Bertrand Russell

Martial arts simply provides the best way of training one’s impulses and passions so as to be antagonistic to war. Not only does one realize where he stands in the physical pecking order and satisfy his morbid curiosities, which then lose their control over him, but he also educates his passions and realizes that he doesn’t actually enjoy hurting people. He can then enjoy the competition, the challenge, and a taste of fear without relishing the kill. Violence nearly always springs from powerlessness or impotence. This is why “arming” ones self can lead to peace. One is not armed in order to create a balance of power or “armed peace,” but instead so that he may become capable of “Rendering oneself un-armed when one has been the best armed, out of a height of feeling—that is the means to real peace, which must always rest upon a peace of mind,” as Nietzsche puts it. This cannot come about without self knowledge, which cannot come about without placing ones self in morally compromising situations. “Ignorance, the root and stem of all evil,” Plato proclaims. If only ignorance could be banished by reason alone, but unfortunately what is needed is a realistic moral education.

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5 Responses to Life Lessons From A Street Fight

  1. Having just read Ramachandran’s “The Tell-Tale Brain” I must add one more aspect to the “love bite” angle: Ramachandran shows that the pleasure that we derive from tickling, laughing, and seeing a smile results from the alleviation of a mounting threat.

    (14-15 minutes into this video Rama discusses his theory of humor:

    That neurological momentum, poised for motor action but stopped by the welcome call of “all clear, everything is safe” bubbles out in expressions of laughter and smiles in the first two cases, and probably just a smile in the third case. This is yet another pleasure to be found in martial arts training, specifically sparring. When your amygdala freaks out and raises the alarm only to be pleasantly surprised by the relative safety you are in, this discrepancy between expectation and reality produces a little zing of pleasure, but in addition, the knowledge that this safety is due both to your partners’ good heartedness and to his sensitivity to your subjective experience produce another pleasure. You feel known, alive, and real, on top of feeling trust and affection for your opponent, on top of feeling a kind of wily zing of relief form having escaped catastrophe.

  2. Pingback: Conflicting Goals and Pushing Through Dips | OnTheSpiral

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