Martial artist? Who, me?

I’m still thinking about ideas from Saturday’s leadership class at my martial-arts school, which I started talking about on Monday. As I wrote then, we started by answering this question: at the very end of my life, what would constitute success? What would it take for me to call my life successful?

After this biggest-of-the-big-picture question, we used the same technique to step backwards from the end and consider different aspects of life. One of which was, at the very end of my time as a martial artist, on the very last day on which I practice these arts, what would it take to call that time successful?

I never actually found an answer, because I was floundering too much over the question. Martial artist? Who, me? I’m a martial artist?

For necessary context, I’ve been studying taiji for a little more than a year. I’ve learned a few short forms in different styles, a number of movements, a number of the principles behind those movements, and occasionally, I can even put one or other of those principles into use. I fully recognize that I’ve learned some stuff about taiji. But, still. Martial artist? I’m learning about a martial art, but I really struggle to accept that identity, and I’m really thinking hard about why that is.

I think about the other new students at the school, the white- and yellow-belts in the kung fu classes, the really young kids in the kung fu-based fitness and activity classes. Would I look any of them in the eye and say, “nope. You’re not a martial artist.”

Would I look at any of my own fellow students in the taiji sessions, all the ones who are still working on basic ideas and trying to get the pieces to fit together, and tell them “sorry, you don’t count. Not a martial artist.”

Is it the art itself? Is taiji not a “real” martial art, because it looks soft and flowy, because it’s not about punching and kicking, not as overtly about fighting? Oh no indeed. Taiji is just as serious a martial, fighting art as any other, if one wants to train up and use it that way.

So, what? In the middle of all this, why do I not count as a “martial artist?” I can just about claim the title, if I’m careful to qualify it — I could maybe, possibly call myself a “beginning martial artist.” Maybe. But why do I need the qualifier? Isn’t a beginning martial artist a martial artist?

It matters that I don’t claim this identity for myself, because it affects the way I think about myself, and the things I choose to do. I don’t take my study quite as seriously as I might, if I were a real martial artist. I don’t think about getting better at this art in a useful way. I don’t think about the changes it makes in me to claim the identity for myself, the confidence it could bestow, the discipline it could help me create.

It makes me think about other identities that I don’t claim, that I can’t quite apply to myself with a straight face. Writer? Professional? Businesswoman? Freelancer?

And beyond those, beyond specific roles, there are more general things, characteristics and descriptors. Am I competent? Resourceful? Valuable? Strong? Desireable? Beautiful?

It means something, these words I am able or unable to claim. Claiming the identity changes what I choose to do, and the things I do in large part determine who I am and who I am becoming. So who do I want to be? How do I take on those titles, so they can help me remake myself?

I am an inexperienced, beginning taiji student, but that is a real thing. I am a beginning martial artist. I am a martial artist. I am.

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