Permanently Black & Blue
There’s a dance studio in the same building as my dojo, and when they play their music loudly, we hear it through the walls. Often, we’ll watch our teacher demonstrate a series of devastatingly painful arm locks with a merry Irish jig playing in the background, and once we had to try not to perform a kata in time to ‘Nutbush City Limits.’ But the song that I’ll associate forever with my blue belt grading is ‘Bruises’ by Chairlift, which was playing as we were warming up that evening.
We were sprinting back and forth across the hall when I heard the familiar bouncy intro, and it made me smile: I often listen to Chairlift while practising at home, and in light of all the sparring we did that night, the line from the song that gives my post its title seemed strikingly appropriate. Heading home afterward, though, I thought of another layer of meaning. The song, with its counter-intuitively upbeat tune, is an extended metaphor about a woman who pushes herself so hard to please her guy that she keeps falling and getting covered in bruises, over and over. Sad to say I’ve done that. In my case it wasn’t a man but a difficult workplace, and like the narrator of the song as well as most of the rest of humanity, I learned what it’s like to fall over myself trying to win people who can’t be won.
I’ve worked out from the experience that obedience comes in two forms, true and false. The former will tell you what to do: keep your feet closer together, keep your focus, keep your hands up around your head. (And the instructions are given with your wellbeing in mind. Keeping your hands up, for example, is the best preventative against getting clocked across the face.) False obedience will tell you what to be: be quiet. Be pleasant. Be submissive. The changes are imposed from the outside, and decided upon by others for reasons that don’t necessarily reflect your own priorities.
The response to true obedience, moreover, comes from who you are, or, more accurately, who you already are: when I’m flat-out exhausted and dripping sweat after an intense hour of karate training, and then the teacher says, “All right everyone, go get a set of dumbbells,” I need to look within myself for the strength to push through and keep going, because it won’t come from anywhere else. False obedience creates a false response – you become an actor, keeping your real personality separate from the way you have to appear – but true obedience calls the best out of who you are. When my teacher says, “Pound that bag as hard as you can,” the person who slams into it with a roar of ki-ai is me, really and truly. True obedience changes you, too, but slowly. I’m not ordered to become stronger, nor forced to pretend to be, but given a set of tasks every lesson which, if I do them without holding back, will gradually shape me into someone who is stronger.
Here’s the final distinction: the bruises that were left by my experience of false obedience are internal, on my heart, and they still ache years later. True obedience leaves bruises, too, but they are something of which I’m proud. They’re usually on my knees and shins from strikes I’ve dealt out to bags that weigh more than I do, with a spattering of others on my wrists and forearms from blocking drills. (And that time I got one on my cheekbone? Well, that was when I dropped my hands during a fast-paced drill and got clocked across the face. Maybe I’m not quite so proud of that one.) A couple of weeks ago, I got winded by a kick to the stomach for the first time – where were my hands? Guarding my face, of course! – and discovered that after a short break I could actually get up and come back for another round afterward. Who’d have known it, except for that?
In my dojo, we call bruises “trophies,” and I enjoy waking up the morning after a particularly gruelling session and seeing the results written across my skin, a visual map of the training I’ve gained. I’m growing stronger, and being permanently black and blue is the evidence.