Not Getting Hit

In my last post (two years ago), I wrote about a martial arts test – called the sakki test by the nerds I train with. Translated, it means something like intent to kill. But, don’t read too much into that. Here’s what it means:

You sit. Someone stands behind you with a training sword – usually a split bamboo sword like kendo people use. They cut. You don’t get hit. That’s the test.

It looks like this:

I took this test, and I passed. But before that, I took it and failed. Several times. So, yeah, that’s what this post is about.

There were 8 or so of us on this trip to Japan, but only 2 of us sitting for the test, me and Bryan. First opportunity we had, Bryan went first. He told me afterward that he expected to get hit, to shrug it off, to go back to training – the test happens midway through a class – and to laugh it off over drinks that night.

I don’t know if that was the truth, or modesty, or what, but I knew he was going to pass before he even sat down. And he did. He could have passed it in a lawn chair holding his dog on his lap. There isn’t much to say about it, or any successful test really. He just got out of the way.

Noguchi sensei was doing the tests that night. Real nice guy. I sat, and he cut, and he stopped short of hitting me. The sword touched my hair a little. And then I moved. But that’s not good enough.

I suppose he meant it as a kindness, but looking back I wish he had just followed through. It’s called the sakki test after all – I’m supposed to sense his intention to kill me, and avoid that. At least, that’s how people who believe in voodoo describe it. I wonder though, if his intention wasn’t so nice, would it have gone differently? Probably not, but I’ll never get to know for sure.

So anyway. The usual pattern is that you get two chances to take the test per class. The second chance is with someone who is a little more junior, someone collecting experience in giving the test so they can do it better. For this I got Dean Rostohar. He too is a nice guy, but he’s also badass combat veteran of the Croatian special forces with a prosthetic foot. He hit me with a stick.

And then nothing. Class resumed.

That was my first day in Japan. After class we ate and drank. The next day we did it all again. That’s how these trips go – just a loop of eating, training, drinking. Occasional breaks for sightseeing, touristy shit, maybe a shrine. But we trained every day.

That doesn’t mean there were opportunities to take the test every day. There are a lot of teachers and a lot of classes. The head of the Bujinkan family, Hatsumi sensei, has been teaching officially since 1970, and when I went in 2018, he was still teaching 3 classes a week. The other days we spent visiting a select few of his students, who also have been teaching for an unfathomable number of decades.

The test – everybody gives the same advice about the test: Don’t think about it. Don’t make it into a thing. Just let it happen naturally. Et cetera.

I was really really good at this advice. Didn’t think about the test again at all until our next class with the big man. Had a great time there – the kind of experience you know, even as it is happening, will never happen again. I would go back, of course, but it’ll be different.

Class happened. And it broke in the usual as it usually does for Hatsumi sensei to do his art thing. He does painting and calligraphy for whoever is there. Whatever you want, just tell him, he’ll whip something up for you. I got a piece of calligraphy. Then, immediately after art time is test time.
This time it was Ishizuka sensei giving the test – possibly Hatsumi sensei’s most senior student? I’m not sure. If not, he’s close.

I had done what I was supposed to do. I had not thought about the test. I had not made it a thing. I sat, calm, relaxed. Closed my eyes. Breathed. And then, opened my eyes again, saw the 80+ other students in the room – friends and strangers. He cut, I got hit. Wasn’t a thing.

Then for good measure Dean came over and hit me with a stick again, and we were back on the training / eating / drinking wheel.

Some day later we went to Nagato sensei’s class. Nagato sensei is my teacher’s teacher. He was once described to me like this: “Thor.” Stories about him tend to include the shapes and colors of bruises. In one of his classes he said to us “Today we practice with pain.” He mostly speaks Japanese, but this he made the extra effort to say in English.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First we were on the train. And on the way, I asked my teacher – Jim – if we could ask Nagato sensei for advice for me for the test. He said something to the effect of Nuh uh. Which I did not expect.

We got to class. Class went the usual way. And then we took a break in the middle. Nagato sensei doesn’t do the art thing. He has a question and answer session while we all sit and drink tea, or Pocari Sweat or whatever. During this, he stared right at me and asked if anyone has any questions.

I politely declined. Mostly didn’t want to contradict Jim. But then he kept doing it, and after 3 or 4 tries to not ask, it kind of became clear what was going on. Jim had talked to him off to the side.

So I asked for his advice. And he told me: “Get hit.”

This isn’t as weird a thing to say as it may sound. It’s kind of normal actually. Allowing yourself to get hit once in a while helps you to know what an attack is going to feel like, so you can dial in just to the edge between getting hit and not.

But I had already taken the test twice, so I didn’t think that applied here. Out of frustration, I responded with a little more sass than was appropriate. Told him I had already done that twice and it didn’t work. He was quite patient, actually, and gave a more in depth explanation.

That explanation was just like everyone else had said before him. There was no Nagato magic, no secret ingredient – there was just, relax, and when you feel something, move.


That night, we went out reveling. Like every other night of the trip. Everyone was in great spirits the whole time. That night, though I was sort of the exception.

I went along – I drank my share of beer, sake, and whiskey. I ate more than my share of karaage chicken and fried spaghetti (???). I told my share of jokes. But the whole time I was distracted.

When we were all back at the hotel, I had some time to do some thinking. I thought about my years of training, my years of school, my years as a tutor – In all that time, I could not possibly count how often someone told me what was going on in my mind, and they were wrong.

People just aren’t that good at knowing what other people are thinking, or how they think. A lot of teaching is trying to recreate for others what worked for you. This occurred to me that night – All the advice everyone was giving me was what worked for them. It hadn’t worked for me so far, and I saw no reason to think it would work any better if I tried it again.

So I stopped trying to follow the advice. I thought about it all night, and all the next day. I made it a thing.

I had read recently about a psychological experiment: Participants are shown a math problem very briefly, too quick for the conscious mind to answer it, and then asked for their solution. Everyone says the same thing. Didn’t see it. Went by too fast.

But then the experimenters press. They instruct the participants to try to answer anyway, to give their best guess. And of course, they follow the instructions.

Then they are asked to rate their confidence in those answers, and the answers are like you expect. They reported no confidence at all. It’s just a guess. Only answered because they were forced to.

What happens, though, is that their answers are right. Not always, but consistently more often than chance would allow. What this result seems to demonstrate is that a lot of what happens in the mind happens at the subconscious level, even things we normally believe to be conscious activities.

My test, the sakki test – maybe it was the same sort of thing. Your conscious mind is too slow to react, but the subconscious works much faster. You just have to learn to let it be in control. And maybe the way you do that – it’s not magic, it’s not the force, maybe it’s just giving it your best guess.

So that became my plan. Sit down. Relax. Don’t wait for some feeling to come over me, because that feeling may not come. Just guess. Trust that the years I’ve spent having sticks swung at me were for something. That’s it.

Wasn’t much. Didn’t know if it was any good, but I had a plan.

Next class – we trained, we broke in the middle for dojo art. I planned to use this time instead to focus and relax, the first of which I was doing a decent job of. The dojo is a crowded and noisy place so I didn’t expect any one would notice.

Jim noticed. Seemed to think this idea was bullshit. Told me to get in line and get my art. Which I did, but I hadn’t brought anything for him to art on, so one of the guys in our group – Mike, if you know him – gave me this little plank of wood he had been carrying around.

I took it, and I got in line. My turn came and I had no idea what to ask for. I set the plank down; I’m sure I said something, but I can’t recall it now.

Hatsumi sensei looked at me. And, he would have known why I was there, would have recognized me from testing the last two times, would have seen me nervous and agitated. He drew me a smiley face.

It’s funny: somebody can tell you to relax but you can’t actually do it. Not directly. You can choose to do something physical – do breathing exercises, get a massage, finish your whiskey. Or, just smile. And laugh.

I looked at the smiley face. I laughed. He laughed. It was the one genuine moment the two of us shared. Even though neither of us spoke. Without saying anything, he told me just what I needed to hear.

Hey man. Cheer up.

Right after that was test time. Nagato sensei was testing. I may have neglected to mention, at Nagato sensei’s class where he gave me the advice, he also told us that he would be there to give me the test personally. He also threw me around at his class so we could establish a little familiarity between us.

The line of people to be tested formed, and I got at the very back of it. Nagato sensei was having none of this – He called me up from the back of the line to test first.

I sat there, saw the room of people watching – not for me to fail, for me to pass. Everybody roots for you in silence. That’s what it’s like.

Nagato sensei rests the sword on my head, and he says, “Get hit.”


I now had two things in my mind:

  1. What the fuck does that mean?
  2. We’ve got a plan. Stick to the plan.

I waited a random amount of time, and I rolled. I stood up, turned around, looked at Nagato sensei. He and Hatsumi sensei were having some conversation in Japanese. I don’t know what they said, but they seemed to be discussing whether or not to give me another chance.

This went on for maybe 20 seconds, but you know the kind of 20 seconds I mean – the long kind.

And then Hatsumi sensei threw up a hand and announced “Okay!”

Somehow that was it. Wasn’t even a thing.

What did we learn? Did I crack the code, find the secret ingredient?
Not really, no. Just like what worked for others didn’t work for me, what worked for me might not work for anyone else.

I think I went into the test with a misconception. I thought it was, like most tests, a demonstration of what you know. Too late to learn anything new on the spot. You can only show what you’ve brought with you.

I didn’t demonstrate shit, except possibly an above-average tolerance for getting whacked with sticks. But that’s okay because this test wasn’t about that. It’s just another lesson.

The lesson, I think, is one you need at some point regardless of what thing you’re studying: how to do the thing your own way.

I don’t mean that you can just make up whatever way you want. I mean that you have to take ownership of your own learning. Realize that no teacher can understand a thing for you.

This is a hard lesson to teach. As a teacher, there is no instruction you can give your student to have them not depend on your instruction. All you can do is cultivate the conditions where the student is most likely to have this epiphany on their own.

It’s possible all lessons are learned this way.

Let’s go back to the test, when I was sitting on the floor with Nagato sensei standing over me. He says, “Get hit.” That’s his instruction.

In that moment I could have done one of two things. First, I could do it Nagato sensei’s way, as I was instructed to do, and get hit. Second, I could do literally anything else. The second way isn’t guaranteed to succeed, but the first way is guaranteed to fail.

If I were smarter, I might have seen this lesson earlier. On the train, when Jim shut down my idea of asking Nagato sensei for advice. It was clear what his intuition told him was the right way to handle the situation.

But that’s not what we did. We did it my way. I wanted to ask Nagato sensei for advice. We asked Nagato sensei for advice.

This may have been Jim trying to demonstrate that his way is not the only way, and that he trusted me enough to do it my way instead. I can’t say for sure whether or not that was his intention. But the lesson was there all the same.

Ah, well. Got there eventually.

Or. Maybe I’m wrong, and I’m just making shit up, and I just got lucky. If a time comes when you sit for the sakki test, maybe you’ll have to figure that out for yourself.

And maybe that’s the point.


A fable: There was a father with two sons. They owned a farm, and over the years had accumulated a modest fortune. The father knew, as any good father does, that the smartest son is the best son, so on his death bed, he devised a contest to decide which of his two deserved to inherit the fortune.

Each son was to take one gold coin from the fortune, and with it, fill the family barn as much as possible. Whoever was more successful would inherit the rest of the fortune, along with the farm and the greater share of their father’s love.

The elder son went to the local grocery store. He bought as many of those cans of compressed whipped cream as he could afford. He chose the store brand. He was smart, see? He knew if he bought the Reddi-Wip he’d just be paying more for advertising.

He was able to buy a whole pallet of the stuff, which he brought home and emptied, two cans at a time, onto the floor of the barn. But, as time went on the cream got warm and collapsed, and even as he emptied the last can, the barn was only filled a few inches.

The younger son, meanwhile, knew his brother was smart, and it would take some savvy to beat him. He considered several options as he walked up and down the aisles of the local hardware store, but eventually a strategy dawned on him. He bought a candle and a box of matches. When he returned, he set the candle in the middle of the barn, struck a match, and the father and brother saw the room fill with light, from floor to ceiling and into every corner.

There is martial art in this story. In training, we often think about space – taking it, filling it, barring others from entering it. We learn early, as the elder son knew, that a space can be filled by physically occupying it. Two people can’t stand in the same place, after all.

What the younger brother knew, though, is that there are more subtle ways to fill space. He was sensitive to an idea that is crucial to martial arts.

Have you ever heard someone described as lighting up whatever room they are in? Or have you ever had a friend show up in a sour mood and drag down the mood of everyone around? We have all experienced these effects, and whether we realize it or not, have also caused them.

When you enter a room, you change it. You cast your light into it. The people there become aware of you. Your demeanor affects them, for better or worse. You cannot stop this from happening (except possibly through extensive training).

A homework assignment: To see this effect in the wild, go to a grocery store. Stand near another shopper. Not too close – don’t make it weird. Just stand close enough that you can see what they are looking at, and continue shopping.

Odds are they will change what they are doing. It is an unconscious response. Experiments have shown most people are unaware of even doing it. But, people will usually move along, turn away, or look at a different product.

This behavior may be a survival instinct, a natural inclination toward privacy, and away from giving away too much information about yourself – even if that information is just what brand of whipped cream you prefer.

You could instead go to a book store. Look around. Pick up a book, leaf through it, and set it down. Now, notice there aren’t piles of books lying everywhere, set there by other patrons. Someone must work at these stores, shelving books and tidying things. But book stores always feel vacant.

They wouldn’t stay in business otherwise. Watching someone shop causes them to change their behavior; the last thing a book seller wants to do is change your behavior while you are in the process of deciding to buy a book. So they give you space. Not overtly, though. They never scurry out of the aisle just as you enter it. They just happen to not be in your way. There is something to learn from Barnes & Noble employees about how not to be seen.

This effect happens wherever you go. Wherever you are is different because you are there.

There was once a man named Bob Humphrey. He was a marine, a veteran of Iwo Jima, and a mentor to several of my mentors. He articulated a refinement of this idea. A goal. He called it a creed.

The room isn’t just different because you are there. It is better because you are there. It is safer. The people are happier.

But that idea is a little different from what I argued before. His creed suggests we don’t just observe the change we have on the world. We choose it. We shape it.

Bob discussed this idea with ninja grandmaster Masaaki Hatsumi, and as a result of that conversation, Hatsumi awarded Bob an honorary 10th dan – a rank indicating mastery of a martial art. The implication is that whatever Hatsumi teaches – normally through decades of physical training – Bob had already understood.

Bob was exempt from a test the rest of us have to go through at some point to demonstrate our understanding. It’s called the sakki test, and it’s the only formalized test there is in the art I study. You kneel. Someone stands behind you and tries to cut your head open with a training sword. Avoid this and you pass.

There are videos of this online. Take a quick look: sakki test

You would be forgiven for thinking this test is a parlor trick. It certainly has that appearance. But that’s not what it is.

I wouldn’t try to convince you that it’s a real attack, either. Not exactly. The cut is real in the sense that you can really get hit. But it’s a test – not an earnest attack. The people who give this test are ninja masters with decades of experience. If all they wanted to do was hit you, they’d hit you. There are no two ways about that.

I’ve heard some people who took it describe their experience like this: The tester projects his intent to attack you. You sense that, and when you do, you move out of the way.

If you want to roll your eyes at that idea, I wouldn’t blame you. But bear with me for a minute. I know what that explanation sounds like. It sounds like mysticism. It sounds like some vague kung fu bullshit. Harness your chi. Open your third eye.

Consider this though. We sense people’s intention all the time. When someone walks toward you with their arm extended for a hand shake, you sense their intention. When you’re in heavy traffic, and the front bumper of the car next to you starts to inch into your way, you sense the driver’s intention, even if you can’t see the driver. There’s no magic in that. You don’t need a third eye to see it. The ones you have are fine.

Imagine a staring contest, where you look someone in the eye and they look back, and the first one to look away loses. There should be nothing difficult about a staring contest, right? It isn’t physically demanding to hold your head still, or focus your eyes on something for a while. But something weird happens. You see other person, and they see you, and you see that they see you, and they see that you see that they see you. Both of you are aware of each other, and both of you are aware of this dynamic.

It’s abstract. It’s not physical. Even still, it is so intense that most people will struggle to endure it. They’ll laugh to relieve the tension. Or they’ll look away. And then, if you ask them what happened, why they lost, they’re won’t be able to explain it. But something did happen.

Another homework assignment: You can do this one in a grocery store as well. But, you probably shouldn’t.

Pick another shopper and look them in the eye. Don’t make a sound. Don’t respond if they say anything. Don’t move unless you have to in order to keep them in sight. And most importantly, do not look away. Keep eye contact no matter what happens.

Can you imagine the effect this would have on someone? Can you imagine the effect it would have on you, if you were on the receiving end? What would you do?

That’s right! You’d get the fuck out of there. And you would be right to do so, because what that person is doing isn’t normal. They’re messing around with forces they most likely don’t understand.

Those forces are fundamental to martial arts. We just call it a connection, because that’s all it is – a connection between two people – a process where two people’s thought processes become intertwined.

A connection can take numerous forms. It happens when a person puts their hands on you, or when you lock eyes. Those are the obvious examples, the ones the older brother from our fable would think of. There are more subtle forms, as well, which the younger brother might have considered, and which the sakki test just might be meant to explore.

When you sit for the test, you are deprived of your most powerful tools. You’re not in physical contact with the tester. You can’t see them. Instead, you’re forced to use secondary tools.

The hairs on the back of your neck might detect a shift in the air pressure, indicating that something behind you has started moving. We have a weak form of echolocation. You might have felt it when you got into your car, and somehow you just knew, without looking, that the back window was down. The air just moves a little differently based on the shape and size of where we are, and we can just barely sense it.

Or you might feel a tremor in the floor – a sound, really, with a frequency below about twenty Hertz. These vibrations are called infrasound. Like infrared light, they are just beyond what you consciously perceive. But it affects you anyway. Horror movies use infrasound to unsettle you, even when nothing unsettling is actually happening yet on screen. Places people describe as haunted tend to have infrasound as a part of their natural harmonics. The fear associated with those sounds, or the feeling some people describe as a presence in an empty room, is likely because those same frequencies tend to reverberate through the ground when people walk on them.

We also collect a lot of information that our brains filter out before it reaches our conscious process. And even though we don’t consciously register them, they have a powerful effect on our perception and decision making. This principle is how subliminal advertising works. And cutting edge neuroscience is only beginning to fathom the depths of how they affect us.

Human cognition is complicated, and we’re not going to solve it here. The sakki test, the connectivity we feel in martial arts, Bob Humphrey’s creed, the fable of the brother with the candle, and the feeling you get when someone reaches out to shake your hand – these are all facets of the same phenomenon, that human beings are connected, and in subtle, nearly inscrutable ways.

Pencil Theory

There are a lot of problems out there – problems in the philosophical sense. Questions that cry out for answers. If North Korea detonates a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific, what should the rest of us do about it? Or, should we bother sending people to Mars? Or, is capital punishment ever ethical? Or, should newborns be circumcised?

We’re pretty flush with problems, but we tend to come up short on solutions. There are 9 billion people out there, most of which are eager to shout their opinions, but that shouting doesn’t always result in consensus. And even if it did, consensus doesn’t make a thing correct.

It isn’t just a trick of numbers either. Think of whatever smaller group you like: your country, your city, your job, or, if you have them, your political party, your church, your parents, siblings, children, or spouse. The closer group you consider, the more similar your opinions are likely to be, but you also know more about them. So, you’ve no doubt found the little exceptions where you disagree.

For this thought exercise, I think of my martial arts group. I’m not sure how many of us there are – maybe 50. We meet up, week after week, year after year, to study ethics, basically: how to protect people, and why. Now, you might expect – or at least I did – that such a group would have a lot in common in other areas, like politics. But it isn’t so. And whatever groups you are a part of are, no doubt, just as diverse.

Why is that? Well, there’s probably no consensus answer to that question either, but here’s my take on it. Bear with me because it starts out a little abstract.


Think about this: Nobody knows how to make a pencil – just an ordinary yellow #2 pencil.

It’s true.

But it’s weird, so let’s take a moment to reflect. What does it really take to make a pencil? You carve the two halves out of wood, you glue them around a stick of graphite, paint the thing yellow, and clamp an eraser to the end of it, and you’re done. But that’s not really making a pencil. That’s assembling a pencil out of pencil parts.

If you didn’t have the parts, the list of things you need to know gets a lot longer. To cherry pick a few, you would have to –

  • Harvest and treat wood from cedar trees, which you either find or cultivate.
  • Mine graphite, and form it into sticks somehow.
  • Make the glue. (Is it horse? You don’t know.)
  • Make yellow pigment for the paint. It’s cadmium sulfide, made by mining and processing cadmium and sulfur ores, and then doing a little chemistry.
  • Make acrylic paint medium, a polymer synthesized from oil, which you’ll have to drill and refine.
  • Make synthetic rubber for the eraser (another polymer) and infuse that with pumice (which you mine) suspended in vegetable oil. So now you also have to grow vegetables.
  • Make the thing that holds the eraser in place. It’s called a ferrule, and it’s made of aluminum. So, back to the mines, this time for bauxite. Refine that into aluminum oxide. Smelt that into aluminum. Machine that into a ferrule.
  • Assemble your pencil.

But wait, there’s more. You can’t smelt aluminum in some shitty blast furnace, like you can with steel. Aluminum smelting takes a lot of electricity, which you’ll no doubt pull off of the grid instead of making your own. It’s high voltage, so good luck generating and transforming it yourself.

And for that matter, you’ll need a lot of tools, which I assume you’ll just buy, as opposed to making from iron that you dig out of the ground with your bare hands. And that doesn’t even consider all the mining and oil drilling equipment you’ll need, or the chemistry equipment, or whatever implement you use to slaughter the horse.

There is no end to this exercise. You cannot make a pencil – or much else – except in the context of a modern, industrial society. If you still aren’t convinced, imagine waking up tomorrow on an island, never to see another human being. How long do you think it will take to work your way back to pencil making?

We like to imagine ourselves as rugged individualists, who aren’t dependent on society, who could take it or leave it. But that is a pure delusion, unless you like the idea of eating berries and carrion, and dying when you’re 32. Aristotle argued that a person who doesn’t partake in society must be either a beast or a god. And before we decide to take that as a compliment, consider that a god would have no trouble making a pencil.

Here’s the point. If one person can’t make a pencil, how can we expect one person to know how to make an economic policy that encourages innovation, or a justice system that consistently rehabilitates violent offenders, or a war strategy that preserves the greatest amount of life? How do we make any of those things?

There is an answer, and it’s the same as the answer to the pencil thing: There are a whole bunch of us! One person cannot do these things alone, but one person does not need to do these things alone.

But that’s also what creates these disagreements. The things we find important are so complex that it is unfathomable that we would agree on them, especially right off the bat with no discussion. The discord we see in the world is an artifact of our finite minds attempting to understand an infinitely complex universe.

And since it’s that, it doesn’t need to be anything else. We shouldn’t need a further explanation. Where there is complexity there is disagreement. That is a sufficient explanation.

So, think of a simple political issue. Think of minimum wage. Some people support a minimum wage, because (they argue) it increases the income of some people. Others oppose a minimum wage, because (they argue) it eliminates some jobs.

Who is right doesn’t matter for this discussion. We’re not going to unpack that issue today. What does matter is that both sides of this argument agree on what the goal is. They have the same values. Poverty is bad, prosperity is good. So this is not an ethical issue. It’s an issue of engineering. The only place where these two sides disagree is which method is the most likely to achieve the goal they both want.

We tend to think of people who disagree with us as unethical, because that explanation is easy and coherent. It takes work for me to sort through the nuances of economics that lead you to believe your solution is better than mine. It’s much easier for me to assume you disagree about minimum wage because you hate poor people.

But you don’t, do you? It would be rare if you did. Ethical disagreements exist, but they’re much less common.

What do you think about guns? Should there be more of them, or less? Should there be more regulation, or less? I don’t know what you believe, but I know why you believe it: Life is worth protecting. Wherever you fall on this issue, you fall there because you believe it protects life the best. There is no position in the gun debate that argues that there ought to be more murder.

Notice how trivial the argument would be if there were. The pro-murder people are wrong, and it’s so obvious that it’s hard to argue in any more depth than that. There are edge cases, but for the most part ethical matters are simple and straightforward. Only the implementation is hard. Because, again, we’re talking about a system so complex that no one person can possibly understand it all.

We deal with the same issue in martial arts. We don’t meet up week after week, year after year, to discuss whether to protect people. We meet up to discuss how. What to do – that’s easy. Why to do it – that’s kind of easy. How to do it – that’s extraordinarily complex.

It’s important to recognize the difference between an ethical disagreement and a procedural one. It’s the difference between an enemy, and someone who doesn’t need to be an enemy. If you agree with someone’s values, and only differ about implementation, then you already agree on the most important part. You are already attempting to move toward the same goal.

Differences on how to get to that goal can be hashed out. We can discuss. We can debate. We can collaborate, and eventually arrive at some course of action. That – I think – is why we are so prone to argue. It’s how we reconcile the differences in how we believe the world works. It’s how we are able, in the long run, to make society. Disagreement is the first step toward agreement.

It’s important to recognize who our potential allies are. We’re going to need a lot of them. The end goal – in martial arts and in life, if you’re doing either of them right – is to make the world better.

To do that, you’re going to need as many allies as you can get your hands on. You cannot hope to change the world alone. Society is by far the most complicated thing people have ever made, and you don’t even know how to make a pencil.

How Galileo Saw What He Saw

Galileo was incarcerated in 1633 until his death for looking through a curved piece of glass and writing down what he saw. There were a lot of reasons, but chief among them was that the people who incarcerated him never bothered to look at what he saw.

It’s easy to imagine ourselves in Galileo’s position – You can build a telescope, but you can’t make anyone look through it. It’s the dilemma of a teacher, which is something we all are at some point in our lives. You can put the telescope you built in some public place for all to use. You can build a fancy beaux-arts building around it. You can offer to explain how it works to anyone who will listen. But you can’t make anyone look.

You could, perhaps, strap people to a table, restrain their heads, clip their eyes open, and wheel the telescope in front of them, so they would have no choice but to look, but you cannot force them to think critically about what they see. You can’t force them to make the effort to understand it.

But, that’s normal. There is more information out there in the world than any one person could possibly learn in a lifetime, so we all have to decide, constantly, what to make time for and what to disregard.

I could tell you, for example, that the number 8 has three cube roots. One cube root of 8 is 2, because 2x2x2=8. There are, in fact, two other numbers that work this way.

Hearing that for the first time, you might respond one of two ways: The first is to try to work it out for yourself. The second, far more likely, is to not give a shit. Which is fine, because unless you have a job or hobbies that involve electricity or acoustics, you will probably never need to know the answer to that question, or how to find it.

When we choose to learn something, it takes some time and effort to process it, to store it in our brains, and to connect properly to all the other things we know. But before we can even do that, we have to make some judgment about whether it is even worth our time.

The people who incarcerated Galileo decided it wasn’t. And why not? Because they already knew what they would see. The Earth is stationary. The Sun moves around it. They knew this as certainly as you know the opposite is true. When someone tells you they found proof the Moon landing never happened, you ignore them, because you already know they’re wrong without checking.

It’s humbling to realize we might have more in common with the people who incarcerated Galileo than we have with Galileo himself, but it’s also worth exploring, because it bears directly on how we learn, and the pitfalls we might fall into.

Let’s think about something more contentious.

Guns. Why guns? Because being a modern human being – especially if you live in America – it is unlikely that you don’t already have an opinion about them. Consider these two statements:

1 – As gun ownership rates increase, homicide rates increase.

2 – As gun ownership rates increase, homicide rates decrease.

Do you have some notion in your mind about which of these statements is true? Stop and really think about it, and while you’re thinking about it, let me complicate things further. Let’s say you knew that I was a strong believer in the first statement. More guns, more homicides.

At this point, you might disagree with me – in which case your mind is likely already pulling out the facts and figures, the anecdotes, the arguments you might make to contradict whatever argument I will make, even though I haven’t made one yet.

Or, you might agree with me – in which case you might be eager at the prospect of learning some new fact or figure you might add to your toolbox for the next time you have a discussion with a proponent of the second statement.

Or, for that matter, you might sense from the way this argument is structured that I’m trying to fool you, and you are instead reserving judgment. That is pragmatic, but for the purposes of this argument, pause here for a moment to consider what you would have honestly done, what would have honestly gone through your mind. Would you have prepared to support my argument? Would you have prepared to refute it? Even if you had no intention of arguing with me directly, what would you have done to settle the matter in your own mind?

If you leaned toward believing the first statement was true, or if you leaned toward the second – either way, you are working toward justifying not looking through the telescope. Which is a shame, because in either case, you might be surprised by what you would find.

The truth is, neither statement is correct, as far as we can tell. The statistics we have show no significant correlation between gun ownership rates and homicide rates. I lied, by the way, when I said I believed the first statement. I hope you can see why it was necessary for the point I was trying to make.

It shouldn’t have mattered what my opinion was. I’m not saying my opinion affected the way you thought about the question, but IF it did, that’s a sign that you weren’t interested in discovering the truth. You were interested in winning an argument.

Which wouldn’t make you different from most of the people discussing the gun issue. People on both sides of the argument argue in the same way: as though the statistics support their position. Why? Most likely because they – like the people who incarcerated Galileo – were so sure of their position that they naturally assumed the data would support them, and so it was not worth their time to verify.

Galileo didn’t know what he was looking for when he built the telescope. He just went looking for the truth, whatever it may be. No one else in this story made that leap, which is why, today, you know who Galileo was, but you don’t know who any of those other people were.