Fighters and martial artists always talk about ‘heart’, or warrior spirit.
It is an unquantifiable quality. Natural for some people, and not natural for others.
It is the ability to keep fighting - to even fight more fiercely - even though you know the battle may have been lost. The ability to stare pain, or defeat, or fear right in the eye – which really means staring into the proverbial mirror – and say, sometimes quietly and sometimes in a loud voice, that you will not stop fighting.
Simply put, it is the strength of character to not give up even though you may want to.
This is a short, true story about heart. I hope it brings you some hope.
Before I get started, I’d like to share some thoughts about heart.
The most powerful and important thing I learned from the martial arts is to handle fear. Any martial art can teach you this, although maybe in different ways and at a different pace.
For me, the grappling arts, such as Jujutsu and BJJ, never held much fear. Frustration at the slow pace of learning (for me at least) and the amazing intricacy, sure. Trepidation at knowing I’m about to get submitted 9 times in a round by someone smaller but more experienced than me, definitely. The grappling arts are humbling arts.
Being submitted and forced to tap out, to admit defeat, to another person, especially over and over again when you start out, is a truly humbling experience - but not one that inspires dread. Not for me, at least.
For me the striking arts were always more about fear.
Taking a savage beating from another person - that is scary. To have someone beat you down with their (sometimes bare) fists brings about a pure, primal fear. I truly believe there are no lonelier martial arts than the hard, full contact striking arts – Boxing, Muay Thai, Kyokushin Karate, Krav Maga (when done right). When someone is better than you, and you are taking hard shot after hard shot, when the bell takes forever to ring and you can’t just tap out, that is when you find out what you really fight for. And whether you will really fight for it. And that no one else can fight for you.
But fear also manifests in other ways. Often, to admit we are bested means to admit we don’t know enough or are not skilled enough. It means admitting that we need to learn more, and that's the same for grappling and striking alike.
Today I went to the hospital. Someone very close to me is not doing well. She had to have a brain tumour cut out. As you might expect it’s a long surgery (6 hours in this case), and not without its share of risks. After the surgery, when I came to visit, she looked at me and said "what do I need all of mess this for?"
How do you answer that? I don’t really know what to say, I didn't spend the last few hours having my head cut open. So I say whatever comes to my mind.
"You don’t. But it’s here and you need to deal with it. You’ve gone through most of it already, now you just need to get better."
I remember a chat I had with her about fault and responsibility a few weeks before.
What happens to you isn’t always your fault. But dealing with what happens to you, regardless of fault, is your responsibility. When you don’t, you lose control of your life.
And here is that warrior spirit, that heart, again. You didn’t deserve this, you didn’t want this. But guess what – it’s here. Now what are you going to do about it?
I’m not surprised that she says I’m right. She's been a fighter her whole life, and is not about to stop now. Her parents were fighters - both holocaust survivors. She asks to see a picture of my baby girl, smiles and then falls asleep. Let her sleep, and focus on recovery. The nurse tells me visiting hours are over and that I need to let her rest.
I give her a kiss and start heading back to my car.
I feel emotional and distracted, and I keep getting lost trying to find the right elevator.
I take a deep breath and remind myself to remember my training. I calm down and focus. I came in from over there, so the elevator must be... Aha! There it is.
As I get to the elevator, I see a nurse rolling a hospital bed with an old man on it to the same elevator. I hold the door open for them. The old man on the bed must be in his 80s and is hooked up to an oxygen tank. There's enough room so we all squeeze into the same elevator.
“Thanks for holding the door, boss” he says. He’s old and obviously unwell, but there is a strength to him. And there is a glint in his eye that tells me he takes in everything around him, and that age has not dulled his edge. He seems as sharp as a tack.
“No worries”, I reply. “What did you to yourself to end up here?”
“Ah, shit happens." He looks me up and down."You’re a boxer, right?”
I’m surprised for a split second, but then I remember that I shouldn’t be. Not because this guy’s obviously switched on, but because we recognise our own. Most people who have trained in the fighting arts can recognise others who have from a mile away. Something about how we move, stand, observe. Something about how we are. That's obviously what I recognised in him as well.
I give him a big smile. I like this guy. “Indeed, I am, sir!”
He nods approvingly. I think he likes that I called him 'sir', too.
“I used to fight” he says and throws a few punches in the air, gently and slowly but with obvious skill. “What do you think of the Horn vs Crawford fight?”
I tell him, and he reckons I’m right. We shoot the shit and talk about boxing during the elevator ride. We leave the elevator on the same floor and turns out we are heading in the same direction.
We keep chatting about fighting. He slaps his elbows and tells me he always wanted to learn Muay Thai but never got around to it.
He then smiles and winks at me, and says “but it’s never too late, hey?”
Damn straight, old man.
“I beat some big guys, back in the day. They were bigger and stronger, but I beat them anyway. You wanna know the secret?”
I ask him to tell me.
“It’s heart. I always had more heart”
And I believe him.
A moment later the nurse rolls him off into the next corridor, and as he waves good bye I thank him for telling me his secret.
In just one short elevator ride, that old boxer told me everything I needed to know about fighting, and maybe about life – to have a big heart, and to always keep learning.
If we do that, do we really ever lose?
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