deferred conflict

Tonight in our martial arts class we were doing a drill and Sifu (our teacher) asked me to demonstrate a technique. Then he turned to the class and said, “The most important thing is to do it correctly. It’s like crossing Woodward [Avenue, the busy road the dojo is on]. If you do it correctly, it’s safe. If you do it incorrectly, it’s not.”

And without hesitation my brain narrated: Kyle crossed Mound Road correctly and he’s dead.

Sifu told us to begin, and my internal fight began instead. I paused as long as I dared. I snapped my fingers lightly at my side to focus and took a breath. I threw a few half-hearted techniques to buy time. I thought about leaving the mats. About where I could hide. About whether I should bail on staying for the next class. I grappled with it for the next minute or two as the familiar feeling of grief ripped thru me at full strength, like it was yesterday.

Once again, I chose to fight. But it cost a lot.

Sifu spoke last month about how folks’ personalities come out when they spar. Do they not want to fight and avoid conflict? Do they enjoy the energy of attacking? Or as he’s said in the more distant past: When they’re squeezed, what comes out?

We did a different drill in the next class with multiple attackers. Two people stood near the middle. Three other people were to attack them, with the third picking who to gang up on 2-to-1. It makes you think about how much time you have, how quickly you need to act, and how to consider where to spend your focus. It’s very dynamic and exhausting, and if you spend time trying to analyze your decisions consciously you’re more likely to get clocked.

I’m the kind of person that waits to see what the third person decides before I open up on the first attacker. I’m being physically assaulted and I still try to deflect or defer, to see where things go, before I hit the gas. But then I get worn down after a few rounds, and finally I just say “well that was enough” and next time I take them out before they reach me. After one such exchange Sifu said, “Wow Lincoln! You let him have it that time!” and I shrugged and admitted I was just too tired to get taken to the ground again.

I don’t wanna fight. But eventually I will.

The thing about fighting, though, is that you know when the fight is coming for real. It becomes obvious when you do it enough times. The point of no return is breached and yet I still try to watch it. I try to defer my first earnest strike as long as I can. It’s denial dressed up as thoughtfulness.

The problem with this strategy of course is that it can escalate the violence. By not acknowledging when the line is first crossed, when the strikes are already inevitable, you can back into a situation that makes the fight more desperate and bloody. The way you fight with your back against a wall when you’re already seeing stars doesn’t have the same level of control as it would at the first step taken towards you with the intent to attack. Maybe they finally break thru the calm and make you angry. Maybe even furious.

We talk about “getting home” as the top priority in any conflict, but if you’re very good at responding well you can take them under control without anyone being injured. Am I forever just getting home?

“The battle is within” is a mantra oft-repeated in the walls of our dojo. Tonight, I wondered whether that battle within operated by the same rules. Was a I watching grief take me to the ground without fighting back soon enough?

Not long after Kyle died, someone offered this advice: Don’t try to shut off the grief because you can’t pick which emotions to feel; you’ll only make yourself numb to all of them and end up worse off. I still think there’s a lot of wisdom in that. I put a lot of effort these last two years into feeling grief, relearning how to be alright with crying, and actually going beyond that and finding a lot of other emotions I’d run away from. But where’s the line between good internal work and becoming a spectator in the battle within?

I still can’t meditate consistently. Sometimes it goes fine. Others I’m immediately consumed with unrestrained grief, holding back sobs more than sitting. And the fear of the latter is a pretty powerful deterrent from trying. What does fighting back look like, here? Sitting and crying? Sitting and stifling tears? Getting angry with yourself so you finally sit, no matter which outcome you arrive at?

When the drill ends, Sifu calls time and announces the next one. Eventually class ends and we bow out. If only the battle within was so civilized.