The following paper was submitted by karate student Dave Peters as part of his 2nd Black Strip test requirements on September 26, 2012.
We talk a lot about respect, but do we really agree as to what we mean by that term? I am not sure. As a teacher, a number of approaches to that question come to mind. Overlapping with my background as a lawyer, my first impulse is to start with a definition and then to look for some quotes that speak to me. As a teacher, I also tend to look at things developmentally—the concept of respect we teach young children is not necessarily as complete as what we would like to see from an adult. I will utilize these approaches, as well as the references to respect in the Cuong Nhu Code of Ethics, but will also follow a more personal contemplation of what respect means to me. To me, all respect must begin with respect for oneself. Finally, I will look at how respect is taught and practiced at Fairwood Martial Arts.
A typical dictionary definition for “respect” is:
- esteem: a feeling or attitude of admiration and deference toward somebody or something
- state of being admired: the state of being admired deferentially
This is very consistent with what we teach young children about respect. We respect our “elders.” We respect those in authority. We defer to their opinions. We hold them up as role models to emulate. We do what they tell us to do. I was certainly taught this. As the son of a Master Chief in the Navy, I learned very early to say “yes, sir,” “no sir,” “no excuse, sir.” I was taught to always show respect and deference to elders, even when I knew that they were flat-out wrong. This sort of “good manners” respect can also be seen in martial arts. We bow to our instructors and to the pictures of the Masters on the front wall. We turn to the left to straighten our gi’s before we do so. We refer to our teachers as “sensei” or “master.” We run when we are told to run and we do push-ups when told to do so. This is formally recognized in our Code of Ethics Number 3 when it says that we should respect our instructors. All this is clearly included in what we mean by respect, but I think it is only the first level of the concept.
I believe that the dictionary definitions only really emphasize the first stage of development—that of “upward” respect for our “betters” or elders. The complete Code of Ethics Number 3 states: “All members of Cuong Nhu are unified in spirit and respect each other and their instructors.” (Emphasis added.) In addition, Code of Ethics number 5 calls for us to respect other styles of martial arts. These clearly call for respect not to travel only “upwards” but also laterally to those individuals and organizations on the same level as us. So if we are not being deferential to somebody on a higher plane, what exactly is respect? I think it starts with the concept that everybody deserves respect. How does this make sense, though? How can we show deference to everybody? It doesn’t seem logical that everybody can get special treatment. It reminds me of programs guaranteed to make all kids perform at an above-average level. Personally, I get my concept of respect from my faith, which teaches that we are all made in the image of God. As image-bearers, we are all deserving of respect since we are representatives of the creator-God who clearly is to be accorded deference. Obviously, there are many people who have or claim no religion who are very respectful of others. However, I think it is harder to have a logical answer as to why we should grant that respect from a purely secular approach.
Most of the quotes I found on respect dealt with self-respect and it being a prerequisite to obtaining respect from others. A typical quote was from Confucius: “Respect yourself and others will respect you.” I think that this is true, but I would take it a step further. I don’t think you can truly respect others if you don’t first respect yourself. I believe that you can only recognize and appreciate worth in others from a position of seeing it in yourself. Any attempt to respect another without first respecting oneself would at best be servile fawning, not true respect. On the flip side, those people most clearly deserving of respect would not appreciate the attentions of an obsequious sycophant who clearly does not respect him or herself. Looking back to my upbringing which taught me the good manners level of respect, I was also taught to not let anybody ever treat me with anything less than respect. That is why I take issue with the dictionary definitions that appear to only operate “upwards.” In my view, respect also operates horizontally in both directions and must start with individual self-respect. Yes, some people will be held out for special deference in one setting (like a sensei in a dojo) because of his or her accomplishments and standing, but that same person in a different setting may be in the role of the disciple.
So, what does this look like at Komokuten Dojo? In addition to the obvious respect we should show for our teachers, we show respect for each other under Code of Ethics 3 in many ways. We do not make fun of somebody struggling with a technique. Instead, we support each other. One day, I may be helping my peer; the next she may be helping me. We make corrections, not to put down but to help each other grow. Our teachers show us respect by making each lesson the best one they can. They do it by pushing us and demanding our best. We show respect to other styles of martial arts by seeing what they have to offer, how they approach a problem from a different direction, not by a juvenile “my style is better than your style” put-down.
But to me, it all comes back to self-respect. I see that concept imbedded throughout the Code of Ethics. The best way I can show respect for myself, for my instructors, and for Cuong Nhu is when I strive to improve myself, when I am faithful to the ideals of Cuong Nhu, when I attempt absolute discipline, and when I engage in dedicated daily practice. The formalities have their place, but are largely symbolic. To me, the heart of respect is less in a nice bow and a clean gi than it is in getting my tired 59-year-old body to the dojo on those days I really don’t feel like being there. Respect is when I try my very best the 11th time I do a kata, trying not to show my exhaustion both mental and physical. This is respect not only for me, but also for all those who are helping me on my journey. If I respect their teaching and their peer support, I do my best.
We all take different paths in life. I do believe that each life is a gift from above. The only way we can show respect and gratitude for that gift is to give our all at whatever we are doing. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.
I will never be the Michelangelo (or Bruce Lee) of martial arts. I can have the integrity to do my very best, however. In doing so, I respect myself, I respect my instructors, and I respect Cuong Nhu.