(thanks to Sensei Andrea Harkins for this topic)

“Have you ever had to use karate against someone?”

Often people ask me this question because they hope I’ve never been in danger.  Sometimes they are just plain curious.  Every once in awhile when someone asks me this, the tone of voice, facial expression, and the body language indicate that what they’re really after is a cool story about how I beat up a serial rapist one night and sent him to the hospital with a few of his parts crushed into jelly.  Most of these people don’t understand that at my level of competence, I’d be lucky to create an opportunity that would allow me to run away.

Real fights aren’t glamorous and they have consequences.  I’ve only been in one fight myself. By Hollywood standards it really wasn’t much of a fight because I only used just enough force to make my point and walk away.  And yes, there were consequences for me even though I gained freedom from ongoing physical abuse.  As I’ve said before in another article, when we use force – even minimal force, against another human being there are consequences.  Outcomes can be either positive or negative.  One can see this principle played out in a variety of life situations.

In martial arts and many sports, two or more people mutually consent to engage in using force against each other.  One walks away with a medal, the other doesn’t.  Sometimes the consequences are greater – one team wins national honors, one team doesn’t.  Injuries of various severity happen.  These consequences are part and parcel for the activities, and hopefully everyone understands this beforehand!

Sometimes people use force against others to prevent greater harm.  For instance, someone might knock another person to the ground to save that person from being hit by a falling rock.  The consequences might be bruises and scrapes, but that’s better than being six feet under ground.  Usually there’s good feeling all around when someone is a hero.  In a more common scenario, a parent might snatch a curious toddler’s hand away from a burning candle.  The toddler might cry in vexation – that’s a consequence, but it’s one most parents can live with.  The child will eventually learn to leave candles alone.

Of course force is also used against people who are acting on bad choices.  It can be tough for us to deal with the consequences of harm we’ve inflicted even if it was only a little harm done for the right reasons against someone who deserved it.  We might doubt ourselves, and that self-doubt could last a very long time.  I’m told people sometimes get sued for harm they inflicted while defending themselves.

Before he passed away, I sometimes talked with my grandfather about his experiences as a soldier in Europe during World War II.  By the time he felt comfortable talking to me about the war, any PTSD he might have suffered was long since over. Nonetheless, he told me that killing others, watching friends die, and almost dying himself were things that had deeply affected his life.  He made it very clear that taking a human life is a very serious thing indeed.

I don’t want to write much about force that is used against people for the wrong reasons.  The consequences for child abusers, muggers, and murderers can range from jail sentences to the electric chair.  Enough said.

The challenge for me as I study karate is to learn to control my use of force so that I don’t use too much when it isn’t appropriate to do so.  I don’t sweat my way through drills and kumite so I can go to the worst part of town, pick a fight, then brag about it afterward.  Such behavior goes against everything Karate students are taught about humility and self control.  I am learning about what kind of force is appropriate for any given situation I might find myself in.  Should I ever have to use force against someone in the future, I will need to accept and deal with whatever consequences come afterward.  Hopefully I’ll have the strength of character to do that.

Choices – Part Two

As promised, here’s the story of my choice to not fight immediately and how that choice possibly averted an international incident between the United States and what was then the Soviet Union near the end of the Cold War.  I’m probably exaggerating my own importance, but it’s a fun story even though at the time I was literally running scared.  What I mean by fun is it’s like a ghost story – many of us like to feel that shiver down our spines as a good storyteller relates the events.  This story contrasts with my previous blog (below), in which I explained how I dealt with the emotional aftermath of my choice to use karate to end ongoing physical abuse.

Choices – Part Two


In 1988, Russian speaking competitions were held throughout the United States (under the direction of the American Council of Teachers of Russian) and corresponding English speaking competitions were held in what was then the Soviet Union.  Twenty winners from each nation were sent to tour the other nation for a month.  This was the first nationwide exchange of high school students between the US and the USSR.  I was the winner for my region.  Tensions between the two superpowers were easing, President Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev were talking, but there were still indications of distrust of even us goofy high school kids.

We knew for a fact our hotel rooms were bugged.  Anyone who’s taken a basic course in electronics knows a speaker can be a microphone and vice versa, so one of us experimented on one of the the cable radios hardwired into the walls of our hotel rooms.  Within minutes a maid appeared, walked straight to the radio, and took away the towels used to muffle the radio.  I kid you not!  Either the KGB didn’t care that we knew they were listening, or the agents in charge that day deemed us stupid enough to think the maid was just popping in by chance.  Way to go, comrades 😛

One night at some awful hour in the morning, my room-mate was sick.  She wanted me to go get one of our American teachers.  I jogged down the barely-lit hallway of the hotel, thundered down the dim stairs, turned on a fairly wide landing and…

“I hear you.”  said a hoarse, creepy, male voice in Russian.

A man stood silhouetted against the floor-to-ceiling window of the landing.

I kept going – in fact I sped up and took the stairs down even faster.  In an instant without breaking stride I’d analyzed this was no place for a fight.  He was silhouetted against a window and therefore could see me just fine by the light of a street lamp.  All I could see was a black form.  The landing was about half the size of a karate tournament square, but the stairway was wide and very much a hazard.  I elected to choose the ground so the fight would be on my terms.  I raced down the barely-lit hallway.  The lighting was on my side now and my American teacher would hear any rumpus.

Scared as I was, I analyzed my opponent as I ran.  I was glad he’d made a tactical error in not grabbing me immediately.  I scoffed at the thought of him expecting me to freeze at the sound of his voice.  Clearly he’d underestimated me, and he would probably continue to do so.  I knew that was to my advantage.  At the same time, I kicked myself for not scanning the landing before I barelled down onto it.  I really wondered why the guy had addressed me using the formal  “you.”  Criminals would use the informal “you” as an insult – a way to demoralize a victim.

My first weapon was my position.  I could see him approaching and there was only one direction from which he could get at me.  As I mentioned earlier, my teacher would hear the rumpus.  My second weapon was my native language.  We were supposed to use Russian as much as possible, but I deliberately shouted in English as I pounded on my teacher’s door.  In the Soviet era, criminals would get in boatloads more trouble for attacking foreigners than their fellow countrymen.  I also had my ace in the hole – karate.

“Mrs. M – wake up!  Are you there?  It’s me…”  I turned to glare at the creep, who’d just appeared out of the gloom at the beginning of the hall, “Well, my roommate is sick and she’s asking for you…  Yeah, she’s feeling really bad…  Yes, she wants you to come.  Oh, and there’s this creep hanging around out here…”

I kept up a constant stream of English and maintained eye contact with the man, silently sending the message that this scrawny teenage girl was actually a force to be reckoned with.  I was glad he didn’t advance further than a few feet into the dim gloom of the hallway.  He stopped about ten yards away from me.

I was surprised at the man’s appearance.  He was clean and neat.  By American standards, his clothes were laughable – can we say polyester, boys and girls?  But by Soviet standards he was dressed in good stylish clothes found in the special stores where only the best little Comrades were allowed to shop.  His hair and mustache were trimmed neatly, but the style was from the mid 1970’s (darned good by Soviet standards).  He clearly wasn’t a street rat.

The man appeared to be listening intently, as people often do when they are following conversation in a language they don’t speak fluently.  When I shouted through my teacher’s door about my roommate being sick, his eyes widened, his head nodded, and I could see his mouth form an inaudible, “Ah!”  He grinned and disappeared after he heard enough about himself (believe me, I had plenty to say).  Finally, my teacher came out of her room.  I walked ahead of my teacher, as she was, shall we say, near retirement age.  I was alert, every sense strained, and I checked that landing in the stairwell thoroughly.  We didn’t encounter anyone on our way to my sick roommate. The man had evidently decided to lurk elsewhere.

The way I figure it, the man was a low-level KGB agent who’d drawn the short straw when it was time to assign someone to take the graveyard shift monitoring us American kids.  Fighting him would have been a very bad idea, and just might have ended with me shot dead.  There was plenty of room for a concealed firearm or two under his tacky dark brown polyester blazer.  Maybe it would’ve sparked ill will between America and the Soviet Union, given I was part of the first nationwide exchange of students.  Maybe not.  But it sure makes an interesting story.

Looking back years later, it’s clear I feel badly about the actual fight I was in and I feel much better about the incident when I ended up not having to fight.  The encounter with the KGB agent in the USSR is like a scary ghost story to be told around a campfire for the sheer joy of seeing chills run down the audience’s spines.  I’m still reluctant to open up about the other incident in which I chose to fight as a last resort.  When we use force, even minimal force, against another human being there are consequences even if it was the right thing to do.

I can reflect on both incidents and know that if I made the right choices when I was a kid, I can probably trust my adult self to make the right choice if I find myself in another bad situation.  But let’s face it – I’m human, I will blow it from time to time.  However, I can also trust my adult self to learn from bad decisions and do better next time.  That is what self confidence is all about, isn’t it?

Choices – Part One

This article is a two-parter.  I spent about three or four years training in karate when I was in junior high and high school.  The two blogs are two stories from my past.  I hope they contrast the differences between how I feel about the events years later.  In one situation, I chose to fight.  In the other, I chose not to fight immediately and ended up not having to fight at all.  I think I made the right choices, and looking back, I’m amazed at how very young I was when I had to face those choices.

Part One – The Incident

One day as my daughter and I checked in to the fitness center for water exercise class, the man working the front desk asked if we’d ever had to use our karate.  He was just being friendly, showing that he remembers what classes we take, and that’s fine.  I was less than truthful with my answer, “Good Heavens – no.”  As I gathered a clean towel from the counter, I wrongfully indulged in self-justification by telling myself the check-in line had to be kept moving so I didn’t have time to get into details.  I wish I hadn’t been so reluctant to talk.  It might have done the man good to hear, “No, my daughter has never had to use karate and I haven’t had to use karate since I resumed training almost three months ago.  I did use karate once a long time ago when I was a kid.  I don’ t like talking about it.”  That wouldn’t have taken long to say.

About half an hour later I had to confront memories of “The Incident” again from a different angle as we were doing a gentle exercise in the pool.  I was asked, “Why did you home school your kids?”  An innocent question, yet it triggered memories.  I simply gave the top two of my many reasons, but lurking in the back of my mind was “The Incident,” which is the number 3 reason I chose to home school.

The next day, I realized that if I was confronted with “The Incident” twice in the space of an hour, I can’t avoid it forever.  The visceral emotional reactions had to be dealt with.  I wrote out a narrative.  I analyzed.  I turned it around.  I have five positives that I can tell myself and others.  Five positives to help me take the deep breaths that will overcome the nausea and tightness in my throat when I think about “The Incident.”

1) I got myself out of ongoing physical abuse that nobody was willing to help me with.   And I mean nobody – I asked.

2) Nobody laid a finger on me ever again.

3) I used only the force needed to make the point that I could take care of myself.  No one was seriously hurt, and that was by my design.

4) Given my very young age at the time, I made the best choices I could have made before, during, and after the incident.

5) I’d really rather talk about the time when I made the choice not to fight and therefore avoided the possibility of an international incident between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. near the end of the Cold War.  OK, maybe I’m exaggerating my own importance, but it does make a great teaser!  It’s a fun story, although at the time I was literally running scared.  Stay tuned for Part Two!

I guess I’m starting to get the picture that there’s a lot more to karate than all the cool stuff we do in class.

Click here for Choices Part 2