Reflections on the Martial Arts

Martial arts are good for fitness and self-defense, but they are better for building character. 

My hands ached and my forearms were a little bloody as I gave the final bow to the master of our dojang in my test for the black belt. An odyssey that began as a second grader in karate class to deal with bullies was complete.  My childhood karate ended when the money ran out, so I tried again with tang soo do and kenpo in college and tae kwon do in medical school. In both cases my training was cut short. During my first tour in Germany, I started tae kwon do once more, but stopped after only a few months. I had tried four times to learn an Asian martial art, made it as far as blue belt, quit, and started over again.

During medical school I took up archery, practicing the skills that I had learned in Boy Scouts many years before. Shooting at targets for hours was relaxing, and my future wife and I spent hours talking at the range. When I joined the Army, I gained access to some terrific ranges and began learning to shoot; a modern “martial art.” While firearms are too loud for peaceful conversation with a loved one, shooting is a handy skill for a soldier, especially one headed for Serbia, Kenya, Israel, and Iraq. It was also handy for hunting when I returned to Europe. I even dabbled in fencing, hapkido, and Army combatives.

In August 2012 my youngest child was old enough to begin martial arts and I signed up with four of my five children. We began at white belt, where I had been so many times before. By now the color of the belt had become less important and the other skills more so. Like Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid, the years had reminded me that the belt is insignificant; the years of training, discipline and character were what mattered. Most importantly, tae kwon do was something that I could do with my children.

We learned the forms, the one-step sparring, the Korean terms, and the basic moves one by one. We got stronger, more flexible, and more able to control our bodies. My daughters, both dancers, already had good control and great flexibility, but the boys needed work. None of them were naturally aggressive and sparring came hard, but it came. Struggling with the roundhouse kick became struggling with the jump side kick and breaking a single 3/8” board became breaking a stack of ¾” ones. My children and I progressed through the ranks, but more importantly progressed through the skills. Some moves like roundhouse kicks and single punches are useful in fighting, some like breaking flaming boards are spectacular to watch, and others are best at building skill and endurance. Nonetheless, every move has its place.

Martial arts, from Latin the “Art of Mars”, are traditions of combat training and practice, both armed and unarmed. Asia has produced such famous types as karate, kung fu, judo, and tae kwon do. Brazilian jiu jitsu puts a South American twist on judo. Europe has contributed boxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, and many schools of swordsmanship. France provided Savate, a type of kickboxing. They were originally developed for self-defense, often by unarmed peasants facing armed attackers, especially in Asia. The history of martial arts is as old as the history of warfare, and the first known depiction of scenes of battle was from 3400 BC. By the Greek era in 500 BC, pankratiasts (fighters using a combination of boxing and wrestling) were fighting in front of judges in the earliest Olympic Games.

In the modern world, tae kwon do and the other martial arts have more to do with fitness and self-control than with defeating an opponent. While some may use the skills of martial arts to gain mastery over others, their real use is to gain mastery over oneself. As it says in Proverbs 16:32, “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city.”

Author: MD Harris Family Institute

MD, MPH, MBA, MDiv, PhD, ThM Colonel, US Army (ret)

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