The scariest moment is always just before you start. – Stephen King
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we are conditioned by society to try to get along, not make waves, and are pressured not to stand out in social settings. I guess this varies by the rules of your society (e.g., what country or part of that country you’re from) as well as your age, personal upbringing, social circle, and genetic makeup but in general it’s safe to say that we are not in a position to jump up on the middle of a school play or town hall meeting and make a scene, creating a focus and center of attention on ourselves. I know a bunch of people who fall outside this statement but I stand by it being pretty much dead on for the rest of us. Lots of people won’t get involved and it’s been proven that the larger the crowd the less likely people are to get involved and help someone in trouble (see the “Genovese syndrome” for more on that).
These tendencies are not our friend when it comes to defending ourselves or loved ones in trouble. It’s even worse when — in addition to these tendencies — we are also highly prone to freeze when attacked abruptly. A lot’s been written about freezing (Rory Miller’s got some great material on this and some ways you can minimize the freeze) but suffice it to say that it’s when you’re confronted by immediate danger (say, a mugging) and turn into a “deer in the headlights”, unable to snap out of it. As I’ve read it, this happens to everyone, despite their training or preparedness, and can only be lessened, not eliminated.
Despite these factors working strongly against us, we have to be willing to let go of our reluctance to act on a hunch, immediately, in public, to keep ourselves safe. This is really giving ourselves “permission” to break societal taboos and actually defend ourselves. Thoughts rush through our heads like “This can’t be happening!”, “Am I legally covered to bash this person’s face in?”, “What will others think?”, “Am I really, truly in danger?”, “I’ll just let this thug go a little bit further before clobbering him!”, or worse — NOTHING. We freeze completely and go blank. Go numb. Get useless. Become an easy victim.
All that training, preparing, sweating, punching, and kicking. All those throws, parries, dodges, and feints. Grappling, wrestling, katas, or what have you. All out the window.
We haven’t given ourselves the mental permission to run or fight back when attacked. Immediately and without hesitation. Sure, in class, a controlled environment where the mindset is to attack fiercely and without hesitation, we can do this. We know that we are safe. We’re in class with pads and friends. We might pretend we’re fighting back but we know that we’re training and aren’t in real peril. But on the street it’s different.
Thankfully I’ve not been attacked or been in a fight since starting my training. I really hope to continue that streak and never be in that situation again but in the past, like many of you reading this, I’ve been in scuffles. They were all ages ago but I vividly remember the feeling of those events. The terror, numbness, and the initial thoughts from above. The hesitancy to get involved.
Our instructors say time and again that you can’t delay or hesitate. It doesn’t matter how strong, fast, or skilled you are if you can’t defend yourself. If you pause and wonder if you can defend yourself it’s for nothing. It’s a knife in the side, a throw to the pavement, or a punch to the face. And likely a lot more.
When you can’t escape, or tell them to “take it easy” and hand over the wallet, or simply take the insult quietly and move along, etc. When there’s no escape and it’s time to defend I think we have to be willing to risk:
- Looking foolish
- Being watched and judged by onlookers (with cell phone cameras running), possibly ending up on YouTube
- Getting injured in the process
- Facing the aftermath (legal, societal, psychological, physical, etc.)
But not willing to:
- Get ourselves killed or maimed
- Let others get hurt or maimed
- Stop until the threat is neutralized or we can escape
This is a tough balance that I spend a lot of time thinking about the past year or so. There are many lines that get crossed from the time you first engage to the point where (hopefully) you put the encounter all behind you. I think you need to be ego-free, able to take an insult, and just “walk away”.
These are the lines that are crossed in my opinion:
- LINE ONE: When the first line is crossed and you perceive danger or a threat you need to be willing and able to make a quick escape — to get the hell out of there. Even if you look like a wussy and branded as being a wimp. Even if you will “never live it down”.
- SECOND LINE: When escape is not possible you need to instantly assess (and accept) that and go full bore against your attacker without hesitation, with unbridled fury and aggression.
- THIRD LINE: There’s a third line that you then come upon which is the legal ramifications (aka Reasonable Force). So much is written about on this topic (again, I reference Rory Miller, in particular the ‘essential reading’ books Facing Violence, Meditations on Violence, and Scaling Force) but it’s hardly ever covered in martial arts schools. The line is about stopping when you should and going no further. There are always consequences for crossing the second line. Law suits, maybe jail time. The third line is about not going a millimeter further in your defense than you need to. You have the attacker completely disabled but decide he needs to be “taught a lesson” with a couple more kicks to the head, a flip over your shoulder into a nearby dumpster, or be slid down the bar ‘Western style’ into the jukebox that’s playing “Stand By Your Man”. These acts will be noticed, recorded by smart phone camera, and shown in hi definition at your hearing. Judge: “Defendant, would you please tell the jury about your extensive martial arts training in the lethal art of Krav Maga [or whatever your martial art of choice is]?”
Anyhow, lots of food for thought, right? We have to stay alert, give ourselves permission to get involved to get home safely, and be aware of the consequences without them actually negating our safety.