Vices in Martial Arts and Life
One of the common myths of the martial arts world is that training makes you a better person.
This is dubious for a number of reasons - I'm going to mention four.
First, nothing simply 'makes' you anything. if the world were capable of molding character this efficiently, then notions of freedom and responsibility would largely be irrelevant (to say nothing of individual idiosyncrasies, which resist inculcation). Put simply, humans aren't determined by circumstance or happenstance - there's always an element of flexibility, resistance and liberty.
Second, the notion of what makes a better person is highly situational - claims about virtue in the Japanese Budo tradition, for example, might seem abhorrent to ancient Greeks or modern liberals. It might be possible to make a case for certain universally moral characteristics - but most martial arts schools and traditions are a long way from this.
Third, the skill sets of fighting are amoral. Even if there are some examples of 'skills transfer', this is by no means necessary. It's quite possible to learn all about timing, distance, and develop great cardio without learning a damn thing about ethics.
Fourth, it's quite possible that the martial arts offer opportunities for people to become worse (by any standard). That is, it doesn't bring out their best - it encourages their foibles, and then cements them under pressure and habituation.
It's this last point that concerns me here. I can't speak for others, but martial arts have actually taken some of my characteristic vices, and made them more intense. And when you think about this, it makes a great deal of sense: in a competitive, stressful, often dangerous environment, we can forget a great many important lessons. Instead of seeking to overcome our vices, we heighten them.
When I say 'vices', I mean it in the Aristotelian sense. For Aristotle, all virtues are mid-points between two vices: one of deficiency, and one of excess. Modesty, for example, is the mid-point between shyness and shamelessness. Now, these are situational - they aren't the same in all people, and they can change depending on the field of endeavour. But they're a handy rule of thumb (a table of the virtues and vices can be found here).
In my case, a long-lasting vice is foolhardiness, which is the excess of the virtue of courage. It means I'm not a simple coward, and I face dangers (real or imagined) that a coward never would. In fact, a foolhardy man can sometimes be indistinguishable from a courageous man.
But there's a difference. Instead of facing my fears patiently, and with self-possession, I hurl myself into them. And of course, this is touched by cowardice, if not being cowardice itself. As Aristotle described the foolhardy in Nicomachean Ethics, 'most of them exhibit a curious mixture of rashness and cowardice; because, affecting rashness in these circumstances, they do not withstand what is truly fearful.' In simple terms, I don't really face I fear - I throw myself into it.
Importantly, this is particularly the case with physical danger: skateboarding, jumping off cliffs, fighting. And this is why martial arts provided the conditions for a worsening of my character, in one way at least.
There's no doubt that Karate - which I had the most experience with - gave me an opportunity to develop a variety of virtues (though it didn't just 'make' them in me). But it also gave me plenty of opportunities for fighting bigger, tougher people. Sure, I deferred to my training. But in many cases, I just threw myself into the fray, trying to obliterate fear through impatient action. Getting angry helped also - another form of false courage.
And when I did Judo, this was even more the case. I wasn't used to being thrown or choked. I was older, slower, and I didn't heal as fast. I also had bad breakfalling habits, probably learned from Karate. So when I had to get dropped, I was scared - I just hurled myself into it. Only getting a few hours sleep a night (I had a three month-old son), I was throwing myself into Judo to pack as much in as possible in between work and home life. When we did breakfalls, I was falling behind. I didn't respond patiently or smartly - I hurled myself into it again (the result: serious neck injury, which I still have).
In simple terms, I never really learned courage in the martial arts. I learned to be foolhardy. In many circumstances I'll brave all manner of threats and perceived dangers. And I'll do so with my wits about me. But in the martial arts, I developed rashness and an inability to smartly and patiently face fear. And this got worse as I got older.
Enough about me.
I'm interested in other people's martial-art vices. They don't have to be framed in Aristotelian terms. What I'm interested in is how martial arts have provided a forum for shortcomings to blossom. And I'm also interested in how these have translated into life.
Has training in the martial arts heightened any of your flaws?