Meet Them Where They Are

For a mysterious reason, this week has proven to be the most difficult week to date when writing the blog we share with one another. If you haven’t noticed, the blog is posted every Friday, except this week. The reason for the delay is one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had as a writer. From time to time, a writer will experience writer’s block. For whatever reason, the ideas will not be born, nor will they flow onto the page. This week, I had an unusual problem, in that I had writer’s deluge. I would finish a draft of a blog, and an idea would surface that would speak to me. The idea would tell me that I needed to put this version of the blog out first. Some may see this as metaphysical poppycock, but for me, it was a frustrating experience until it made sense Friday night.

As martial arts and self-protection instructors, the most effective, and perhaps only way we can truly reach our students and clients is to teach them at a level in which they can grasp the material. In other words, we have to reach them at a stage in which they find themselves in life. A professor in graduate school used to admonish me to put they hay down where the goats could get to it. This euphemism was a way of telling me that in order for some people to learn, you have to teach them in a manner in which they can grasp the material. 

I have worked with many instructors over the past 20 years that are far more talented, bright, and enthusiastic than I could ever hope to be. Many of these instructors had hundreds of students. The vast majority of them however were lucky if they could muster enough people to have a decent workout in their garage. What they all had in common was a message that was able to be used in life across applications. We often fall into a myopic phase of teaching, in that we teach punches, kicks, throws, and countless other physical techniques without also explaining the moral applications associated with these tools that have the ability to maim and kill. 

I have found that martial arts instructors…. True martial arts instructors that have been ensconced in true budo… also possess a wisdom that transcends physical technique. I am fortunate in that my instructor was one such individual. I have often related to my students that the most profound moments of training and learning with my instructor often took place around my instructor’s kitchen table over an English supper. I recall one time in which we were talking and he told me the most effective instructor is one that can touch a student’s life in multiple ways, not simply on the mat.

As an instructor, do you truly know your students? Do you have an idea of what they may be facing in life? What troubles and fears caused some of your students to seek out your direction? These questions are vital to address because they will necessitate you meeting them where they are in life. You will have to structure your teaching methods and material in a way in which they can be touched by it, and in a way in which they can apply it to their life in a very unique and personal way. 

In my own journey as an instructor, I have taken a non-traditional path. I don’t have a traditional dojo. I teach corporate courses, and I teach private and small group sessions. It is the path that has proven the most beneficial and fulfilling for me. It is also a path that my instructor told me many years ago that he saw would be the best path for me to follow. I resisted his advice for quite some time, until I succumbed to his wisdom. Thank God I did, because it has proven to be a wellspring of success and blessing. 

My wife and I are foster parents. It was through the foster care system that we were introduced to our son. As many foster parents will attest, seldom do you have a plethora of information about a foster child, and this applies also to children that you may eventually adopt. This has been the case with our son. Through my own investigative efforts we have learned quite a lot about our son. But there is also a phantom that is constantly in our home, in that there are things we may never know about the boy we are raising to be a respectable man. 

Last week, we committed a taboo act as foster and adoptive parents. We met our son’s birth aunt at a location about 100 miles from our home. It was both a moving and skeptical experience. My son came from an environment of extreme neglect. Both sides of his birth family were severe drug abusers. They were violent with the world and each other. Most people, by basic human standards, would label such people as the scum of the earth. I did, and in many cases I still do. Then I had an epiphany.

The lady sitting before us in a restaurant was a blood relative of my son. She had a connection to him that I will never have, despite the fact that she had only seen my son once when he was two months old. She had largely divorced herself from her family and the abuse and neglect that was entwined in the DNA of the family unit. I then saw the parallels between her and my son. How could two kind, intelligent, and decent people come from such a destructive background? My son had the misfortune of entering the foster care system, yet he would be fortunate enough to find his way to a place in which he would be nurtured and cared for. This lady had to figure it out all on her own. She had to make a choice. She had to learn lessons that would scar her for life without the aid of a teacher.

Or did she? In her case, her experience was her teacher. She saw her brother, which is my son’s biological father, suffer with an addiction to heroin. She would witness many of her close family members, including her sister, mother, and stepfather, die from heroin overdoses. She saw as normal the reality that those she loved would be segregated from society in prison for a variety of criminal lifestyles. 

No matter what you teach, and no matter what environment you teach, the possibility is extraordinarily high that you are teaching a person like her or my son. I took this opportunity to get to know this woman. I asked probing questions about her experience and her life inside a family that by any standard is dysfunctional and destructive. In the modern world, whether you have a traditional karate dojo or you have chosen a path similar to mine, you will have a student that has suffered through a lifestyle similar to this. If you do not take measures to understand where this person has come from and where they are in life when they are working with you, how can they effectively be helped? 

The answer to this question is rather straight forward. We must meet them where they are in life. We may not be able to relate to their experience, but we can relate to them as a fellow traveler in life with an intention to understand them and to offer them a skillset that can help them overcome hardship in life. We can offer them compassion and assistance, and if they need more than we are capable of providing, we can offer them aid in finding what they need. 

You undoubtedly will have students that lead charmed lives. You will have students that lead normal lives. But right now in the ranks of your dojo or in the chairs of your seminars, a person is there that is suffering unimaginable pain that is the result of neglect, abuse, violence, and degradation. Meet them where they are in life. If they are hurting, hurt with them. If they mourn, you should mourn with them. While you do this, impart your knowledge while finding a path forward for this person. As you do this, your skillset as an instructor will increase exponentially. 

Martial arts, taken literally, is an art. It requires creativity based on the mastery of certain skill sets. Shakespeare was a creative genius, yet he had to master the basics of penmanship, reading, and comprehension of the English language in order to realize his true greatness. As a martial arts teacher, a true teacher, you also have the opportunity and responsibility to meet students where they are. No matter where they are in life, pass on your knowledge and apply it individually to the life in which they find themselves. This will aid that student, on their own unique path, to find their way forward in a life that up until that point was a trail covered in fog. Be their guiding light. 

Find us.


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