When I was asked to participate in “Cellcon Zero”, a brainstorming venture outside Nashville, I realized that was only four hours drive from Atlanta, and that if I flew into Atlanta and rented a car, on my way back from Nashville I could stop in and see my beloved friend and mentor karate grandmaster Steve Muhammad. We saw Black Panther together Sunday night. Imagine this: a man who was raised in Mississippi by his grandparents WHO HAD BEEN SLAVES was sitting watching the most powerful images connecting past and future for children of the African Diaspora. He had lived to see this. He said that he has already seen young black people being more…relaxed. Centered. Loving. Opening doors for their elders. Smiling and walking with pride.
He’s seen it four times, and still can’t quite believe it exists. Hopes that it is the beginning of the next phase of our lives, and that he lives long enough to see it come to fruition.
Fruition? Well…neither of us will live to see that. But we both have seen more than we believed was possible. The rest is up to our grandchildren. And their grandchildren.
One of the most beautiful things in the world is watching some of the great warriors I know in the presence of their children or grandchildren. The precise same men and women who seem so hard and explosive when faced by danger or challenge turn into absolute mush.
And this is only a contribution if you are stuck in dualistic thinking. In truth, both males and females have the capacity for both dynamic action and deep nurturance. It is an illusion to believe otherwise. Now, we humans tend to SPECIALIZE in one or the other, which has led to a raft of misunderstandings., but in my mind, the myth of the European knight is a perfect example of what it all is at its best.
Consider the knight (remember, the myth, not the reality): all of that impenetrable armor, the razor-edged sword, the lethal lance, the fiery steed, the deadly skills and berzerker aggression…all is, optimally, “at your service, m’lady.”
In other words, the strength in service to the softness. That strength can be an external shell (an immature version, often found around those without mature role models) or an internal essence. Think “you can have a shell, or a spine.” The angry attitude, the hair-trigger temper, the posturing and demands for respect…those are clues you are dealing with a child, and a frightened child at that.
But that same person who KNOWS they have love and meaning, that they are safe, “absorbs” that external emotional shell, and it becomes like their bones.
People often miss this in the martial arts, think that it is about hard muscles. It is certainly about strength, and focus…but also about relaxation. Power is a result of both strength AND speed. Speed is a result of strength applied to relaxed muscles, combined with proper alignment and conscious focus on the end point, with the intervening points of action are controlled by the unconscious mind, through endless repetition.
Tai Chi is an extreme exploration of this softness, but without the moment of focus, applied tension, it is “merely” a health exercise. Tai Chi is, properly learned, a blend of “yin” and “yang”, of “female” and “male” energies, and can help adjust this balance, with males usually needing more softness and females generally needing more tension.
Of course, you meet guys who don’t know how to focus, and women who don’t know how to relax. After teaching thousands of students, and asking hundreds of them about their lives, there are very common reasons for the imbalance, too damned often dealing with neglect or abuse from a same or opposite sex parent. Fear or excessive hunger for one or the other energy. OR…abuse on a sexual or emotional level from a (often series of) romantic partners. The wounds manifest as need to protect. Our first rule is survival. Only AFTER we feel safe can we develop the openness that can lead to love, and even willingness to sacrifice for the things we believe in: our families, our values, our nation or species or world.
It is beautiful. A full human being has BOTH strength and softness. Two incomplete human beings can form a full relationship if they can balance these things between them. It becomes “toxic” when one or both EXAGGERATE their polarity. The consequences are many and dreadful, and we are beginning to debate that now.
But…there are a thousand ways to NOT get to Disneyland for every road to reach it. Better to focus on what health is, what balance is, what wholeness is.
Steve Muhammad is one of those balanced human beings, an absolute sweetheart with a core of diamond. For decades I had wondered how he could be so strong. That was before I learned about his upraising. Something like slavery burns away the cultural identities that most human beings need to defend them against existential loneliness and fear of extinction. Most are broken when these things are stripped away (and the cost is so extreme that most people can’t even really conceive of it. Foolish comparisons to “immigration” are a symptom of this mental blockage and avoidance of guilt and fear), but those who survive…
Those who survive?
Well…heat and pressure make diamonds, you know. Forty-Five years ago I sat in the L.A. Sports Arena and saw a man I’d never heard of, named Steve Sanders, perform a mass attack defense against a half-dozen men, moving with speed and power and precision that seemed in human. In an instant I knew THAT was what I wanted in life. Dear God…how did I know? How did I know in an instant that THAT was what had been missing from my existence?
How did I know that Tananarive was what I needed…in an instant?
How did I know that I should leave college and follow my dream of being a writer…in an instant?
I can only think that we have within us an urge to complete ourselves, and that if we listen to those voices, and are prepared to act with courage when we see the opening, we can change our lives.
Steve and I are brothers of the soul. To my shock and delight and confusion, this master of masters respects what I have accomplished in the arts, and who I am as a human being. I don’t know what greater gift I can receive in this life than such an acknowledgement. In truth, everything I am is the result of wanting to be respected by the kinds of men I respect, and desired by the kinds of women I desire.
The rest of the world is welcome to find its way to its own destiny, at its own pace.
I just needed my family.