Thursday, April 09, 2009

Bushido (the art and the way of the warrior).

This morning was a good morning, the sun was shinning the weather was pleasantly cool, with a light breeze, not too hot not too cold, a very balanced day. This morning was a good morning.

How often do we hear those tired and tested homilies, the ones our mothers are so often all to happy to bludgeon us with?

Twenty years ago I remember having a conversation with a friend who had realised an epiphany, he had come to the conclusion that all such axiom where actually true and was experiencing a sea change in his opinion of how his mother thought. I of course was nothing if not polite about this, and nodded, and made affirmative noises, in the right places, without actually committing to anything other than supporting my friend, who was obviously suffering from some kind of breakdown as far as I was concerned.

It is only now (over twenty years later) that I find myself in a similar situation. With at least one phrase that is.

The homily in question:

“It's not the winning, its the taking part that matters!”

I have in the past tried to apply myself to this axiom, but must confess that no matter how hard I tried the buzz of winning, the glory of being number one, always stood in the way of fully understanding this.

On the other side of the coin I must also admit that a lot of activities have been spoilt for me because of this “must win” attitude.

For instance football for me is completely abhorrent. Partly from the fact that being as completely a uncoordinated teenager, possibly left handed taught to be confused, in fact the epitome of the phrase “cack-handed”, to be completely honest one of the least coordinated of individuals, lacking even some of the most fundamental hand to eye (and hand to foot) co-ordination skills, I was not very good at it. No that's an understatement. In fact such a masterful understatement as to almost not be one at all. I as crap. I hated it, and was usually one of the last to be chosen for teams just after my mate Alex who had a brain tumour removed so wasn't one of the fastest individuals himself. Now don't get me wrong it was not as if I was one of the fat kids (the weight problem only developed later in life, about my late twenties), I practised yoga, and could have someone balance on my stomach, whilst suspended, resting just my feet and my shoulders on two chairs (like a bridge). I was just naturally crap. In the “have to be number one” world this upset me, because there was no way I could be “number one”, it also upset my schoolmates because it meant I was liability if forced onto someone's team, thus standing in the way of them achieving the number one spot. I also disliked football because there was always the one person who, though mildly better than most, insisted on being the vehicle of the teams every success. You know the sort, the one that spends the entire game yelling to have the ball passed to them, then when someone else attempts to score they are the loudest to berate the individual (usually backed up by a couple of their cronies) because they would have scored if the other had not been “hogging “ the ball. Reaffirming the “have to be number one” because you will never be as good as them. My solution to the problem was to volunteer to go on cross country runs every week rather than play football (yes I disliked it, and still dislike it, that much).

Another example is chess. My father is a very good chess player, of the sort that he used to sit there and say “check in six moves” and achieve it. Again the “must be number one” attitude that I had eventually stopped me playing chess against my father because I never won. Not my fathers fault, but what was the point if I could never be “number one”. I know the point is that by practising I would improve, but if you loose all the time then you just become disheartened not practised.

So where is this going?

I am not unusual in these experiences and attitudes. In fact the emphasis has increased over the years. It is becoming more and more important to be a “winner”, not a “looser”. I see it on children's programmes (I love Saturday morning sleeping off the hangover in front of cartoons, meant for people fractions of my age). I see it in television not aimed at children. I see it in the street. I even see it at work, not so much now but in previous jobs. I get sucked into the mindset every time I come across it. You see children chanting in the street, on television, that lord of the flies ritual, “Looser” (elongate the pronunciation of the “o”).

I am sure we all have someone (brother, sister, cousin, old school friend) who is forever brought up, either by relatives, or by our own (huge) measure of self loathing, that is symptomatic of this problem. Even in the media, newspapers, television, the examples are waved in our faces every day. We are bombarded with images, and stories, of individuals who having done so much better than yourself, with the bigger house, the bigger car, the bigger salary, etcetera, are the poster boy/girl of the “must be number one” society.

Why the change now?

Over the past week that endless fountain of knowledge in the corner of my lounge (yes the television) has been pointing me in a certain philosophical direction, or more rightly re-pointing me in a direction that I was travelling in previously but had become distracted from (now there's a surprise).

Specifically through two programmes.

Firstly through a programme called 'In Search of Wabi Sabi' with Marcel Theroux, then through Horizon ('Who Do You Want Your Child to Be?' With David Baddiel).

1) The first 'In Search of Wabi Sabi'. Now to the best of my understanding , and please do not take me as any authority, the concept of Wabi Sabi is a duality of the inevitability of decay and destruction mixed with the continuity of individual, as a part of society, all perceived as a thing of great beauty. For instance there is a Haiku (Japanese traditional seventeen syllable poetry) allegedly taught to Kamikaze pilots during world War Two. Actually accredited as the death Haiku of a samurai warrior. The Kamikaze being a re-establishment of the samurai class in order to encourage individuals to join the force. I will rant on Haiku, Samurai, Kamikaze, and ritual suicide at some future point. I digress the Haiku taught to Kamikaze sums up Wabi Sabi for me:

If only we may fall,
Like cherry blossom in the spring,
So radiant and pure.

I can not accredit the translation (unfortunately, not me own). The point of mentioning Wabi Sabi is the acceptance of the eventual futility of all things, what is the point of anything because in the end all we are going to do is die? It is an acceptance but not a nihilistic point of view, but an incredible insight into the beauty of inevitable impermanence. It is also enshrouded in the Confusion idea of an individuals worth is only what they can contribute to society.

2) 'Who Do You Want Your Child to Be?' Though an interesting journey into Mr Baddiel's the major point that was made was about the way we encourage our children to succeed. You, much like any of us, will have experienced, as a child, that aspect of childhood where your oh so over enthusiastic, parent asks where you are in the class. That pressure to be top of the top class. My own experience, though in the top bands for most things, and much to the amusement of my friends at the time, I took what can only be referred to as remedial French, again I was abysmal at the subject, but extremely good at everything else. Even Mr Baddiel admitted, as a parent, he himself fell into the trap of asking where his children were in the class, were they at the top? After some extensive (for television, and I must admit to being somewhat disappointed in Horizons recent decline in content in order to “dumb” it down for more popular consumption) investigation, he concluded with some interesting ideas. the major being that it only builds frustration and malaise to continue to drive your child to be number one. They either burn out trying or grow up somewhat resenting you.

It is here the epiphany occurred. The point being you can spend your life, as many have, striving to be the best in your field. The stupidity of this point of view is that no matter how fast, high, clever, you are, there will always be someone who will come along and beat you. Even if you succeed all your life, inevitably there will come a point where, after your death, our entire life's efforts are either render completely pointless, or just become insignificant.

The point, as concluded by Mr Baddiel, as the better way to encourage children, to help them develop in a naturally and in a balanced way. Don't spend your entire life striving to beat every one and every thing. You either end up horribly failing and destroying what life you have, or completely wasting so many incredible opportunities. Strive to be the best you can. strive to improve yourself. the question to be asking both yourself and your children is:

“How did you improve with the experience?”

“What did you learn from doing that?”

“How did that better you as a person?”

 Bushido is not about being the best swordsman, it's about being the best swordsman you can be, improving yourself, beating your previous best, not beating everyone else. It is by improving yourself you become the better person, not by beating everyone else.
It is not the winning that matters; it is how you play the game.

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