Competence and Freedom

Our first line of defense is to know the difference between right and wrong.  But staying out of trouble is not enough.  We need to build our ability to do right.

Doing things well gives us freedom.

Here’s why:

If you do not take care of yourself, if you are unable to do much that is useful for others, you feel helpless, lonely and worthless. The world will appear to be hostile, closed, and dark.

The source of freedom is competence:

Doing things well requires discipline and persistence. It means mastering your body and mind. It means studying hard in school or in training. It means applying yourself to your work; mastering the skills you need to do something useful for people.

It means taking care of your family, and looking out for your neighbors and friends.

How does “doing things well” give you freedom?

Being able to do something useful for yourself and others gives you a purposeful, worthy, dignified life.

Here’s another way: To attain real skill, in anything, takes impulse control and goal orientation. As you build those you cultivate a sense of your own agency – self-reliance and a belief in the efficacy of your own action.  That is, you become an adult.

You become a reliable person. People trust you. Because of the way you behave and the way people respond to you, more and more as time goes on you find yourself in a world where people trust one another, rely on one another, and care for one another. That is a good world to live in.

It goes deeper.

The process of mastery – of an art, a skill, a profession, a life – getting good at things – requires that you understand how things work. You develop real, practical wisdom.

Practical wisdom is not esoteric. It applies to every kata, every match, every day at work, every interaction with family, friends, co-workers, customers, rivals and people you pass on the way.

Practical wisdom includes recognition of the truth of impermanence – that things change, that you change, that you can change your own qualities, for example by training and learning and doing right, and that you can change the things around you, by skillful work.

It includes a recognition of “no-self-nature” – the operating assumption that conditions, objects, relationships and even your own qualities – are not fixed or permanent. They change, continually. And that their change is not random, because everything has cause, and every action has an effect. We will harvest what we plant. If we do wrong, we will be trapped in fear and violence. That is why the foundation of self-defense in doing right.

That is why learning to do things well gives you freedom. The freedom to act, and the motivation to remain alert, and to act with purpose and skill. You can get things done. You have good reason to respect yourself.

You see that you are responsible for your actions and their consequences. You do not need to depend on others to provide for you, as if you were still a child.  Young children cry or complain to get what they want. They may feel angry and resentful when they are disappointed. They may blame someone else, or the whole world. For an adult that mindset is corrosive and disabling. Because of that mindset people feel they need to lie, steal and hurt people to make their way in the world. They get entangled in conflict, misery and violence.

Becoming competent gives you access to wisdom and compassion.

These are practical abilities.  Spiritual life is not a separate reality, a special realm with special rules, terms and actions, different from those of our day-to-day world.  Everything we do has spiritual consequences. Everything we do has practical consequences. Our inner and outer lives are not separate.

Competence gives us freedom. Skill in self-defense, at work, at home and out in the world is our way to liberation.

What we mean by “freedom” cannot be understood if we consider it only in a worldly frame. As a martial artist knowing right and wrong is our first line of defense. Although it may be hard to see at first, it will be our last line of defense as well.



Post Copyright © 2021 Jeffrey M. Brooks, author of The Good Fight – The Virtues and Values of the Martial Arts.



Appreciation to Anthony Esolen, Cassandra Nelson and James Franklin for insights.


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