My Karate Kid: Out of all my children, this is the one that laughs the most. He’s also the one that cries the most. I understand that.
Tiny arms moving gracelessly through his first form, face a mask of concentration and trepidation, tongue poking out between his teeth, just like his mom; I watched the teacher watching him, trying to take the mother out of my eyes and failing. “I hate karate,” he had said as we walked into class. My heart was tight in my chest for him. It’s hard to be new. It’s hard to be unsure. It’s hard to be little. But most of all it’s hard to want nothing more than to be a great Karate master and have your limbs continuously betray you.
The Sensei paused in front of him – it felt like eons before he nodded, his twinkling eyes belying his strict mouth – and said, “You did well.”
Even though I was pretending to read my book, the 5-year-old drama eclipsed the one in the paperback and I watched my son’s small chest puff up in pride. The tightness in mine loosened. But then I saw it spark in my son’s eyes and I knew what he was going to say before the impish words left his mouth. “No I didn’t.”
Allowing a small smile to purse his aged lips Sensei nodded in agreement before cupping my son’s chin and replying, “Listen. And next time you’ll do better.”
My breath caught as I felt the sting for him but as I watched my son resume his Horse Stance with renewed determination I realized that the Sensei’s admonition was relative to the ear of the hearer. I took it as a slight, a correction, a public admission of failure. My son took it as a hope, a correction, a public admission of faith. The fact that he could do better did not detract from the fact that he also did well. And he sensed his Sensei’s confidence that he would do better. Where I had responded to the emotion, he had responded to the honesty. However would he become a great Karate master unless he accepted that there was work yet to be done? Very young children are honesty personified.
I considered the last time I was measured. It was not long ago. As adults we do not usually perform the judging in so obvious a way but nevertheless it happens. And I will admit my first instinct was not to correct the generous appraisal in order to seek a more realistic assessment of my strengths and weaknesses. I wanted – deeply – to only hear the good. Because my sense of self is fragile, weakened from years of battering. But it is only through acknowledging our weaknesses that we grow stronger. I know this. My son who is strong and resilient and as yet uncrushed by expectation, he also knows it.
I want to know it. Of course, this means that I will stop talking long enough to listen to the wisdom of others. This means that I must be persistent in my work so that there will be a next time. And this shows that for every weakness there is a strength – nothing is so flawed that it cannot be beautiful. Even me.
As I watched him try more times than the Little Engine That Could, I thought of the many times and many ways I’ve been taught this lesson over the years:
On an airplane. My husband having lost his job, I was 9-months pregnant and flying alone with two toddlers. For the first time as an adult, I was going back home to stay with my parents. As I boarded the flight, I saw people sigh and roll their eyes. Nothing grates like a crying baby on an airplane. I knew this. I had no choice. Tears welled up in my eyes. It does not bode well when the mother is crying before her children and the plane hasn’t even left the tarmac. And then she came and sat decisively next to me. Tucking her book into her purse she said, “Don’t you worry about it honey. I have two kids at home and so I’m going to sit right here and help you with these babies. You’re going to be just fine.” And she did. And I was.
In the mall. At the time my son was three with emotions far too big for his tiny body, making normal toddler tantrums look like spring showers. He demanded Chinese food for lunch. I said no. With a speed and ferocity that still surprises me, he flipped over the stroller holding his infant brother, ripped a mannequin off a pedestal, tipped over a display table and took off screaming down the mall. By the time I’d righted the baby and grabbed my 4-year-old, my other son was long gone. Panicked, I sprinted after him. I finally found him at the far end of the mall, still sobbing, held tightly by a grandmother. My heart caught as I waited for a lecture. Instead she said, “I raised five of my own. I remember exactly what this was like. He’ll grow out of this and you’re going to be okay.” And he did. And I was.
At the gym. Sitting on the end of my treadmill and crying is not as uncommon an experience as one would hope. And that day I was a mess, snot and sweat oozing down my chest. I’d “failed” a race. I was training for another – it was supposed to be my redemption (I mean, what decent fitness blogger can’t run a marathon on a whim? THIS GIRL. I digress.) but the training wasn’t going well. I was tired and sore and spending all my energy taking care of a loved one fighting some serious demons. As the Gym Buddies took note of my sorry state, I expected a lecture. Or perhaps a pep talk. Or even a tampon joke. (You can never go wrong with a tampon! Well, you can. But that’s why they’re so funny!) But this time they just sat on the end of the treadmill with me and put their arms around me. “It’s hard, we know. Stay strong.” And it was. It ended up being so much harder than I could have comprehended at that moment. And I was stronger for it.
And so the voices of all those women tell me: You did well. Listen. And next time you will do better.
I did. I am. And I will.
Anyone else ever learned something cool from a martial arts class? What little lessons have you guys learned from listening lately?