A Little False Humility, Please

You get tested in the strangest ways, in the most unlikely places. Debbie and I were in L.A. Chinatown, some time ago, taking our usual tour of the shops. We stopped in one Chinese book store and began to browse among the martial arts books. Three young men were running the store and one of them, noticing our purchases, started to ask about my “credentials”. After a while all three had come over as the store manager kept firing leading questions.
“Ah, you are a Kung Fu expert.” He made a few amateurish movements in the air.
“I’m a student.” I said.
“How long have you been practicing?”
“For a few years.” The others nodded making their own versions of Kung Fu moves, looking at one another.
“You must be very good.”
“I have a long ways to go.”
Something about the last answer hit a note and his whole expression became puzzleed for a second then he said, in a completely different voice, “Oh, you must actually be pretty good.”

The late, great Kensho Furuya. Humility as practice and life.

What had I done? From that moment we were treated with respect and consideration and set up a good relationship which exists to this day. I realized soon after what had happened. They had many people come into the shop talking, as martial artists are want to do, about their  achievements. So they thought they would test and get me to brag about myself but I’ve long ago passed the proud stage.

Nothing I said was a false front. This is actually how I view my training. This idea of humility in the arts seems to be rapidly disappearing and it’s too bad. On the other hand perhaps it is simply not understood. Of course there are such things as “false humility” which can be traps of their own but that‘s another problem. A definite part of the martial arts is the study of humility which, like the arts themselves, will last a lifetime.

Humility, first, is not a front, a gimmick, a pose. In fact, if you have any intelligence at all, it is simply a very realistic estimation of existence. If you add up the columns you will quickly find that humility is simply the recognition of the odds that you aren’t the be all and end all of the universe. Humility is a widening of the telescope lens to include, for instance, all those people who lived before and after you, all those hidden experts who really know more than you, all those unknown heroes who are braver than you, all those circumstances you CAN’T overcome. In other words the insoluble, the ineffable and the comically imponderable things that make up life

Yes, I know the cliches we teach our children in the arts. “There will always be someone bigger or tougher than you.” “Martial arts begins with respect.” That sort of thing. The first never made any sense to me since I always  wondered “what were the odds” of bumping into that bigger, tougher guy. In my cases it would be easy but I know a lot of experts who are way over six six with multiple belts and loads of combat experience, what are the odds if you look at it that way? Should these guys NOT be humble? Forgetting the Neanderthal simplicity of “bigger and tougher” there is the far more profound experience of meeting normal, average people with unusual portions of courage and endurance, these I meet almost every day of the week.

Humility, to look at it from the philosophical side, is simply the old problem of town and country. Humility comes from a life viewed organically. We live in the palm of Nature’s hand, and we don’t really need movies like 2012 to remind us. Arrogance is an urban trait, an identification with what’s “in”, what others think, with your position in the vacuum sealed container of society. If you are Mike Tyson the whole world is boxing and you are the best, at least for a moment. As I said before humility is often the lesson when nature, fate or circumstance brings us up face to mirror with the impermanence of our achievements. Something the martial artist faces at each practice session.

The real difficulty is that humility seems almost impossible in our rapidly morphing society because it seems to make us vulnerable. It confuses the nine to five humdrum work ethic of the last few generations with the constancy of a time long before the industrial revolution when such constancy might be by choice rather than compulsion. It is the return to the mundane as a source of illumination if not enlightenment. I don’t know about you but I struggle with this every day. In this regard my old friend and teacher, Willy Lin, exhibits humility when he calls his mother back in Taiwan every night. My colleague, Linda Darrigo, works through this when she continues her practice year in and out though her level of expertise is already high enough that most people would spend their time teaching and making money in the arts and let the practice go. Humility keeps us going back year in and year out but it also keeps us young. It allows us to appreciate  other martial skills and in that retain our enthusiasm for the art to which we have devoted so much time.

I truly believe that humility is not so much a requirement from the martial arts as a reward. Perhaps it is the secret weapon against depression. Often the arts teach you nothing more than that continued fidelity leads to a new level of perception; and that if this perception lacks humility many lessons are passed over without notice. We often get depressed when we don’t make “progress”. But progress has become a commodity. To go out and practice a little each day and confront that part of us that makes only the slowest, most reticent advancement brings to us a bulwark against depression.

Yes, there is a pose attitude of humility called “false humility” which seems to be the big excuse at present for showing almost no humility whatsoever. Funny, though, we don’t prevent people from displaying and even reveling in the much more common “false love”, “false expertise” or “false concern”. In a world where yelling people on their cell phones walk through your conversations even false humility might be a relief. And who knows where it could lead?