Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What I Learned from Mr. Miyagi

Beyond some incredible montages, the 1980s are probably best known, at least film-wise, for their attention to adolescent adventures. From Back to the Future to the Goonies to Sixteen Candles, it is difficult to deny their appeal. Even today, when I ask some of my students about these films, they seem to be at least moderately aware of their existence. I think that this is due in large part to the fact that they don't make too many "coming of age" films anymore, unless it involves some young man's "courageous" quest to explore his sexuality identity. Give me Sloth and Chunk any day over that crap. In any case, one such film that is almost universally loved and remembered by high school students is the Karate Kid. What is appealing about this film, no matter what the generation, is the fact that it involves, an underdog, a mysterious and wise teacher, and some nasty bullies that really do a get a fabulous, one footed, crane-kicking butt whooping in the end.

But apart from the fabulous closing scene, there is one other scene (or series of scenes) that looms large in my mind. Simply say to someone out of nowhere in a wizened Miyagi-like voice; "Wax-on Wax-off", and rest assured your friend will provide a demonstration without any further encouragement. Yet beyond the entertainment of having a friend show you karate moves of which he is incapable (think Star Wars Kid in his Garage), there is something else about these scenes which undoubtedly captures our collective imagination.

As campy as this film may be, Mr. Miyagi is a truly an unforgettable character. Even more unforgettable is the method he uses to instruct the young lad. For his part, Daniel (san) Russo wants to learn karate in order to confront some bullies that have been hassling him relentlessly. Fortunately, it turns out that his landlord, Mr. Miyagi, just so happens to be a black belt in karate and is more than capable of training him. So Daniel approaches him and expresses his desire to become his disciple. Reluctantly, Miyagi accepts Daniel's request, but only under one condition; "I tell you, you do. No questions, Okay? Walk on left side of road, fine, right side, fine; walk in middle, get squish like grape (insert grape squishing sound)." In other words, he tells the boy, either you give yourself completely to this, or don't do it at all. But whatever you do, don't do it half way.

Miyagi's first command is that the boy show up at sun rise the next day to begin instruction. Enthusiastic about his training, Daniel shows up at dawn ready to begin, but when he arrives, to his and the audience's surprise, he receives a very different kind of instruction. Miyagi hands the boy a sponge and a bucket. Apparently this mysterious man is some sort of collector of classic cars [that he appears to be fixing up] and he wants Daniel-san to wash all of them by hand and then wax them; a task that the boy must perform in a very particular manner. Indeed, it is not enough that the boy wash them and wax them haphazardly- he must use a technique whereby with one hand he "waxes on" and with the other he "waxes off". Of course this only makes his task all the more annoying and burdensome, prompting Daniel-san to initially protest. However, his protest is short lived, for Mr. Miyagi responds with a stern rebuke; "Daniel-san, remember our deal!" Consequently, Daniel resigns himself to the task.

The next morning Daniel shows up at the same time only to receive an equally onerous task. This time he must sand Mr. Miyagi's deck. Mind you, this is no small deck- it is a deck that extends throughout his backyard (it is part of an intricate Japanese garden). A slight variant of his original task, "sand the floor" involves the following motions; "right a circle, left a circle, breathe in, breath out." But as the day wears on, and all the work appears to be finished, Mr. Miyagi approaches Daniel-san who is clearly tired and sore and tells him "Good work, Daniel-san, go home, get some rest, start early tomorrow... six o'clock." Daniel says nothing, but it is clear by the look of dismay on his face that he is quickly losing patience with his master's regimen.

The following day is no easier for the boy, for what should follow "sand the floor", but "paint the fence." Like the previous tasks, this one also involves a specific motion (along with the requisite breathing). The paint the fence motion is one that involves both an up and down pattern and a side to side motion as well. At this stage, Daniel-san knows the program so he doesn't quarrel, but when he finishes the fence in relatively short order and points this out to his master, Miyagi simply points to the rest of the yard, indicating with his hand that Daniel-san's work has just begun; "whola yard." The movie does an excellent job of keeping you in the dark just enough to feel the sense of burden and futility that Daniel-san must feel as he is once again given a laborious task.

However, the last straw for Daniel-san occurs later that night when Mr. Miyagi returns from an apparent fishing trip, only to comment, not on the boys good work, but on the fact that he apparently had "missed a spot". Understandably, this intentionally glib comment sets Daniel off. Embittered, he begins cursing and accusing Mr. Miyagi of essentially turning him into a slave and using his karate instruction as pretext for getting free labor. But just as Daniel is about to walk away into the night cursing his master, Miyagi, shouts brusquely at him; "Daniel-san, come here!" Calming down a bit, Daniel approaches his master still frustrated to a large degree. What follows, as many of you now, is one of the more pleasing and satisfying scenes in cinema. Unbeknownst to Daniel-san, Miyagi was teaching him the fundamentals of karate the whole time. Thus, when he tells Daniel to stand at the ready, he finds that all of the monotony was not in vain. In fact, his muscle memory is such that when Mr. Miyagi tries to hit him, he instinctively blocks all of his attempts. The scene concludes with a flurry of moves by Mr. Miyagi, all of which Daniel-san is able to deflect thanks to the three primary motions that he had been learning during those days of toil.

From this sequence I have learned three major lessons. First of all, it (along with the rest of the movie) helped me to appreciate the virtue in karate. In some ways it is the most moral form of hand-to-hand combat, and in fact mirrors the Christian principle of how to engage one's enemies. The first aim is that of defense and not of assault. It is the art of trying to bring your opponent to submission, not by brutalizing him, but by subduing him. If this fails, and he will submit by no other means, then yes, one may have to employ a more offensive technique. But the larger aim is to avoid such an unpleasant exchange altogether.

Secondly, I learned from this scene one of the more essential lessons about the practice of religion. Whether in school, at home, or on the practice field, we accept, more or less, that we will have to do things that seem futile or meaningless in order to succeed at them. In the case of sports and other activities, we perform these disciplines, not because we think they are meaningful, but because we see them as a means to an end. They are our golden ticket to doing the things we want to do- whether that be driving the car, starting in a game, or getting an "A". Ultimately, we do these things for the pleasure that they promise, not for the discipline they impart. But what this movie so wisely articulates is the fact that, despite our superficial reasoning, all that annoying busy work (sports or otherwise) is not merely "busy work." This is not to suggest that there aren't instructors who do this, but most good teachers give their students work that they know will benefit them. The challenge from the teacher's perspective is that the student quite often only vaguely (at best) comprehends why such discipline is imposed. Consequently, what is so deftly communicated in this film is the reasoning behind certain essential, though monotonous, practices.

Indeed, one might even apply this lesson to certain "monotonous" practices in our religious faith. Like, why do we have to repeat the prayers of the Mass e-v-e-r-y Sunday. Or why do Catholics pray the rosary? Is God so hard of hearing that he has to hear the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be over and over again? And what's the deal with the Church's excessive focus on sexuality and the sanctity of life? One reason you could argue is if we say it enough times, someone might take the remarkable step of actually seeing the wisdom in these words. Another reason, I would suggest, is more pertinent to the movie. Men are, as it were, spiritual and psychological amnesiacs, and unless we tattoo certain principles in our very heart, mind, and body they will not find a permanent residence in our thoughts and actions. If there is such a thing as muscle memory, then there must also be a parallel in the spirit. And so the purpose of these little repetitive exercises is that they become second nature to us. An actor doesn't learn a script inside and out so that his performance is rote; he does so in order to make it as natural and spontaneous as a real life encounter. And indeed, what a joyous occasion it would be if we too were find (along with and Daniel-san), that all of this repetitious "nonsense" really had a purpose after all.

The last lesson I learned from the master- that is, Mr. Miyagi- is perhaps the most subtle and interesting one of all. Why didn't Mr. Miyagi just tell Daniel-san from the outset about his agenda? Why did he keep the veil of ignorance over Daniel-san's eyes as long as he did- knowing that it would push him to his limit? As an audience we accept this approach as if it makes perfect sense, but in truth it is anything but an obvious lesson. Mr. Miyagi could have said; "Don't worry Daniel-san. I am teaching you Karate moves. It is a special technique I use, and it follows from you learning the moves through repetition (something essential if one is to be a master at anything)." But no, he doesn't do that! Instead, he leaves the audience and Daniel under the impression that he may simply be playing games with the boy.

The lesson he must learn is the rarely appreciated discipline of trust through blind obedience. If the student cannot trust his master in things which are beyond his knowledge, then how will he ever understand what is beyond his knowledge? Parents will sometimes tell their children; "Because I said so". This may not always be the best approach, but it is not always possible, nor beneficial, to present your children with some sort of essay or thesis that explains their rationale for everything. Indeed, there is virtue in obedience alone. What I am suggesting is not some zombie-like servility, but one in which the student actively learns how to be flexible in a world that often is not. The truth is there are some things that a young mind can't (nor particularly wishes to) understand. For example, when a three year old reaches for the electrical outlet, you do not go on about the nature of electrocution and the galvinization of energy, you simply slap their hand. Perhaps at later time such an explanation is apropos, but at that point it is only possible to create an association between the light socket and danger. And this, in varying degrees, is the case at any stage in life. Thus, this radical trust must go well beyond the student's comprehension of things, and reach into the realm of "I can't understand, but I trust you, and so will do what you say." Without this profound trust, the student is doomed to know only what he immediately comprehends. Yet coupled with this form of obedience, he can then move beyond his limited capacity and truly understand the mind of his master. Some may scoff at the notion that anyone should have blind trust in anything, but there is no one who strives for greatness, who doesn't believe that their personal heroes are worthy to be trusted completely in their area of expertise.

In the Gospels, Jesus (the divine Miyagi) has his own Daniel-san moment with his disciples when he gives them his teaching regarding the consumption of his "body and blood." When many of his disciples are understandably shaken and disgusted by such a proposition, some choose to return to their former way of life. In the course of all this, Jesus never says anything like; "Wait, stop, please, I want to explain to you what I really meant." Rather, he lets them walk, and then turns to his apostles and says; "Will you leave me also?" Or on another occasion, when Jesus tells his apostles about his plans to restore Israel; a plan that includes torture, humiliation, and death by crucifixion. One can understand why such a pedagogical approach might be greeted with some genuine skepticism. It is almost as if Jesus is trying to shock and offend everyone on purpose. And indeed in some sense he was. For just as Mr. Miyagi had pushed Daniel-san to his limits, so also Jesus does with his disciples.

But why would Jesus want to push them away? Actually, it would be more accurate to say that he is trying to "push" them, rather than push them away. Like a great coach who tells an athlete, "I don't think you have enough heart to make it", the goal is not to provoke despair, but to see if there is any fight in the boy. "This is a long grueling journey and if you don't buy in completely, it would be better for you to turn back now... lest you get "squish like grape." Talent and passion will only take you so far. Without the recognition that you should "always look eye" when it comes to your master, you will never see things from the eye of the master. Most of all, what is required of the disciple is a flexibility of spirit. You must be capable of taking anything that is thrown at you- not bitching and complaining about it, but confronting and accomplishing the task that is set before you. Moreover, you have to be willing to go on even when you no longer physically, mentally, or even spiritually want to. Hence, the secret to genuine excellence is not your own personal comprehension of every single law or dictate of religion, but a divine adaptability, an internal freedom that grants you the liberty to proceed with courage, even when a cloud of uncertainty is overshadowing you.    


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