Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Myth and Memory in the Martial Arts

There's a lot of tall tales in the martial arts.

We pad our stories of overcoming conflicts by making them seem bigger than they were.  Our founders grow bigger than life with stories told in each generation.  Our styles and organizations and lineages are chock full of these sorts of myths about those who came before us and the purpose behind what we do.

Take the one I was told when I started in the martial arts, in taekwondo.  I was told that flying side kicks were for knocking people off of a horse on a battlefield.  They were serious and believed this to be true.

Before you try to tell me it's true, you better have all of your references lined up, buckaroo, because I don't buy it.

Another tale often told in weapons circles - and I've heard or read this for more than one weapon - is that people would take a blunt, round weapon (like a bo, a jo, or a quarterstaff) and use it to flick things (dirt, rocks, sand, hot coals) into opponents coming in to attack.

I'd like to see the evidence for this being a standard thing, vs. something did in desperation with the blunt end of a pike or a broken weapon or something.   Having trained with many of these sorts of weapons now, I find it a little... iffy... as a tactic.  I'm not buying it, sorry.

From a certain point of view, it might look like people are telling deliberate lies.  And in a few cases, this is true - they are telling deliberate lies.  Some of us can't help but to edit stories to make our founders or our friends or ourselves look better or more important than we are, on purpose.

But in most cases, it's actually happening because memory is malleable.  Combine that with the effect of "the Telephone Game" and you end up with some really amazing, nearly unbelievable stories with grains of truth, coated in a big fuzzy ball of "alternate truth".  Read THIS for more insight on this effect.

The thing is, these distortions aren't usually deliberate lies at all. We believe them to be true, because our memory says they are true, and we trust our memory.  I mean, we have to trust our memory, right?

So the truth of it gets buried underneath a myth that builds up around it.  And the story, which in reality were probably far more mundane than we believe, take on the properties of Greek myth.

Zeus inventing the lunge punch for one-steps.

Modern Arnis is chock full of "Professor stories" about Remy Presas and things he did and said.  First generation direct students are full of them, as he was a colorful character. I'm sure there's lots of truth there, just as I am certain that in the retelling and in the time that's passed, certain parts are emphasized while others which are just as true are forgotten.  I think there's a lot of distortion in these stories that are told and passed around. Not on purpose, but just because that's how the human brain works, and how the retelling of stories also works.

As an aside, every student telling a "Professor" story almost always imitates his speaking style and accent the exact same way, so I know they are telling the truth as they remember it. It's actually kind of spooky.  When people who did not train with Professor at all - 2nd generation like I am - try to do the same thing recounting what a first generation student told them, they tend to do the accent wrong.  After all, it's an imitation of an imitation, right?

On the one hand, I think we'd all like to know the real truth of the stories we are told, and the details that have been lost to time. On the other hand, the story becomes something that binds us together, much like other kinds of myths and folk stories bind together tribes and families.

I think we need these myths to help us stick together in our styles and our organizations. After all, shared stories are one of the things that makes a culture, right?

So in a sense, it doesn't really matter if they're completely true.  They become larger than the truth, and more than just the recounting of something that happened.  The story is more important than the facts. They become part of the glue that binds us together.

We need these stories as much as we need the other things that bind us together.  Healthy skepticism about the truth of these stories is probably warranted, but don't discount their value, either.

So what are some stories you've been told in your style that have reached the level of myth?  Let us know in the comments!