The Place of Honor

For about a million years people used only one tool.  A rock, chipped into a long oval, with sharp edges and a point. A hand ax. It was handy. 

If you lost it, broke it or gave it as a gift you could make a new one. You could find plenty of blanks in the nearest stream. Flint was good, but not essential.  Perfect for hunting and skinning game, it was the one tool you needed to bring the best of the paleo diet from forest to fire pit. 

What more could you ask for? If you were a Neanderthal, a Heidelbergensis, a Sapiens, or anyone hunting and gathering in those days, your answer would have been: “Nothing.” 

In England, Kenya, and China the tools people made were so clever, strong and sharp that they can still be used to extract every last nutrient and calorie from deep in the bones of an ox – or in the old days, of a wooly rhinoceros, sabre tooth tiger, reindeer or mammoth. 

It took special knowledge and hard-to-get experience to use a sharpened rock well. Those who did it were accorded the respect due to elders.  

Elders were venerated for good reasons. One was because they were not dead.  The elders had special knowledge and skills, which worked. They succeeded in doing what the next generation needed to do. And the teens coming up knew the elders could teach them to do it. It was a blessing and a thrill just to be in the company of people like that. They were winners. Life was hard. They gave you hope.

Respecting old people – in their thirties or forties or even older – made sense. It became a habit in ancient times. Later it became a tradition. 

The tradition conferred survival advantage: Be brave and skillful and you can expect to get your turn as a venerated elder. It encouraged everyone who could to take the risk and do the work to earn respect and serve the people. 

It was part of an exchange of value and respect in a world that – for all its chaos, thrills, unexpected delights and terrors – seemed to have an underlying order, which, if you could penetrate its mysteries, might bless you with good results. 

How to penetrate its mysteries: Learn. Practice. Persist. Prevail. Generation after generation, out of love, care, need and rivalry, people showed one another what to do.

The pace of change in those days was slow. Knowledge accumulated incrementally over a lifetime, was preserved over generations, over millennia, over eons. It took work to discover what worked, to preserve that knowledge, to master it and to pass it on. People who did it were needed and respected.

Now the pace of change is fast. Instead of the accumulation of wisdom and skill over a lifetime it seems that elders cling to the cliff of obsolescence. What if, after all that life, all that hard work, your experience does not make you a sage, just a dinosaur? 

We have a lifetime habit of replacing old stuff with new. What if the replacement isn’t better?  Who tells us there is another way to look at it?  Is there?

It is worth considering:

How seriously do we take our mission? 

How well do we use what we have?

How important are our lives?

There is good reason to believe that our practice is a technology older, more versatile and more enduring than those ancient stone tools. It remains as potent a survival skill now as it was a million years ago. And it is as urgently needed.

One of the rewards of practicing traditional martial arts is that you can go deeper for a lifetime. It is not automatic. It is not often done. But it can be done. 

Another is that your skills are valuable. There are people around who want to know what you know.

A potent technique works. It works the same way it did a hundred or a thousand or a million years ago. A life committed to mastery, under the heat and pressure of training, in the midst of people who share your passion and purpose, works its transformative magic now as it did ages ago.

Your value and the value of your practice does not depend on culture or innovation, on the pace of society or trending fads. It is up to us to make our practice vital and our experience available. That is true at any age, at any rank, anywhere in the world that you train.

If you take your status for granted people might look to you for a promotion, or with nostalgia, or with warm memories from the old days. They might appreciate what you did, but they will not be looking to you for answers. Even though you surely have some.

Our youngest dojo members learned to walk just a few years ago. Our oldest are watching their grandchildren grow and thrive. They, and everyone in between, want to be strong. To use their time well. To live with honor and dignity. To be in the company of decent people who value what they value.  All take a step forward every time they train. All embody the values of strength and purpose and nobility, and pass it on.

Even now the things that matter most don’t change very much at all. 

Post by Jeffrey Brooks © 2019

Photo by Gregory Galas

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