I usually go running on Wednesdays, and so I bundled up and headed out this morning. As soon as turned on to Edmondson Avenue, I came into full exposure to the wind and the wind chill dropped by what felt like twenty degrees. My face felt like it would be a frostbitten mess in a minute or two. It hurt. (According to Weather Underground, today's weather in Catonsville featured "windchill as low as 0F".)
I was very sorely tempted to give up and go home before I'd gone a hundred yards. I was already pressed for time, with a shiatsu client coming early in the afternoon, and so I had a ready-made excuse. (The cold weather was bad enough that my client, who lives a two or three minute walk away, drove over.) And it's not as if skipping one day's run would really affect me long-term. I have done it before when weather have been really bad, or when I was feeling sick.
But one thing I think we have to develop to really accomplish anything -- whether in karate training or any other endeavor -- is a sense of when discretion is truly the better part of valor, and when we're just taking the easy way out and covering with an excuse. It's not always an easy distinction to make, and I don't think there's any way to develop that sense except time and experience
And that implies that new students usually don't have that sense, and so as a teacher I sometimes have to make that judgment for them -- when to push and when to say, "Ease off a bit."
In these days of helicopter parenting and childhood obesity, when kids are often unused to discomfort or intense physical activity, I find that I more often have to play a bit of the mean sensei with young students. "No, you can't take a break and get a drink of water. You're not dehydrated, you're looking for an excuse for a break." Or, "I am uninterested in the drama of how tired and sore you say you are, you can do ten more push-ups without your arms falling off."
But I can only say these things to students with any moral authority because I say them to myself. There's a folktale about a mother who asked the great Sufi teacher Mullah Nasrudin to tell her son to stop eating sugar. (The story is often told with Gandhi playing the role of the sage, but it probably predates him.) "Come back in two weeks," the sage answered. She was puzzled, but returned the following week. Nasrudin looked at the boy and said, "Stop eating sugar." "Thank you, sir," the mother said, "but why didn't you just tell him that last week?" "Because," Nasrudin replied, "last week I was still eating sugar."
On the other hand, there's no point in pushing a student -- or myself -- beyond the limit of discomfort and into injury. My old sensei Marion Ciekot once observed that "Karate should build you up, not tear you down." But then, ironically he passed away early largely because he did not take good care of his health -- with all respect due one of my teachers, if he had applied that maxim to himself, if he had kept up his own training a little more vigorously, he might still be making life difficult for white belts today. Perhaps, though, he eased off his training because of the cumulative effect of injuries over the years (minor ones from training, especially back in the Kyokushin-kai days, but also a more severe one he suffered during his service in the Marine Corps).
But ultimately each student has to know for themselves where the line is, has to develop the sense of when to say "Ok, I'm going to push through this discomfort and not give up" and when to say "I'm going to hurt myself if I keep this up, time to take a break."