No matter how far I veer off course talking about martial arts santas or no-touch-knockouts, I always feel like I have to reign myself back in and ask – why practice martial arts? MA can be costly, taxing, aggravating, tiring, and discouraging.  Why bother with all that racket?

I believe one reward is something called resilient optimism.

What is Resilient Optimism?

Resilient Optimism is that human quality that allows us to see the silver lining in a bad situation.  It’s a burning in our chest that ignites when our sensibilities tell us to quit and give up.

There’s a Japanese proverb that states: “fall down seven times, get up eight.”  This expression embodies unyielding determination, but in the phrase’s simplicity it speaks to many human qualities, resilient optimism being among them. It means that even when things look bleak, there is a possibility for growth and goodness in the end.

Martial Arts, Human Nature, Resilient Optimism

In order to find out how martial arts truly effect resilient optimism, we have to dig into human nature itself.  In general, people have a base level of happiness and contentment.  That means, regardless of what happens, they return to this level (think laws of equilibrium).

It looks like this:

There are ups and downs, but after all is said and done, that baseline is reestablished.  The waves you see can be very big, or they can be very small.  For example, winning $10 on a scratch off lottery ticket would make a small upward wave. Woohoo!  Free ten bucks! But nothing really changes and life goes on.  Winning $1.5 million in the real lottery would make a much much bigger upward wave.  Swish!  See you in Tahiti suckers! But ultimately the hassles, family strife, scams, and emotional tensions would bring a person back to where they started, even if it took years.  There may be more dollars in their pocket, but their baseline would return to its equilibrium.

Luckily, there are ways for people to make lasting changes to their baseline level. Unfortunately, it’s nothing as easy as buying a lottery ticket.  Real change must come internally; all external factors are like wind blowing at the branches of a willow.  They can bend it this way or that, but they can’t make any fundamental alteration or growth.  That has to come from the tree itself.

Plateauing and The Human Baseline

The human baseline can be moved up or down, and plateauing is the most common way for that to happen.  Plateauing is something that occurs whenever we wish to cause change in ourselves.

It looks like this:

What we see here is long stretches of equilibrium followed by periods of growth.  The one real variable is time.  Depending on the task being undertaken, each plateau can last a vastly different amount of time.  If you’re talking about getting better at a video game, each plateau could be an hour.  Getting better at a kata would take longer.  Unfortunately, emotional plateaus are far less predictable.  Each level could be a matter of months, or a matter of decades.

So How Do Martial Arts Effect Resilient Optimism?

At their core, the martial arts train emotional and mental aspects just as much as physical.  They do so by providing challenges, goals, disappointments, adversaries, friends, and more. By struggling through martial arts, practitioners ultimately enhance their self confidence, self reliance, and determination.  Resilient optimism, the ability to see the good in even bitter situations, is made up of these same components.

The most important thing to remember about resilient optimism is that it is not an opiate.  The goal is not to turn a blind eye to suffering and tragedy because it’s easier to accept good news.  Instead, resilient optimism through the martial arts teaches us to accept pain because we’ve put ourselves through the pain of personal growth for so many years. We’ve looked at ourselves wholly and unapologetically and asked how we can make ourselves a better fighter, a better student, a better teacher.  When compared to the ironworks of our own motivation, the tribulations of the outside world are pale – which is why resilient optimism is as natural as a bouy floating in the water.

When you put it all together, it looks something like this:

A Personal Example

Sometimes optimism can be difficult, no matter who you are.  For example, while writing this post my new puppy threw up three times.  Kata never prepared me for this.

His name is Nero, and he has been living up to the noise of his name.  I am resiliently optimistic that one day he’ll be a good boy and not eat things he’s not supposed to.  That day is not today.