Taekwondo – Training in Humanity

Martial Arts for Life

“Hana, Dool, Set, Net . . .” Our movements flow in the rhythm of the count. Punch transitions to punch as we alternate fists. The flowing motion is broken only by the final snap as we batter the air.

For the last year, I have been a student of Taekwondo. Its blend of physical activity, challenge, and utility has brought much benefit. I’ve grown stronger and more confident. The lessons below are a glimpse into what I’ve learned.

Respect is unconditional.

We bow when we walk into our training space. We bow when we leave. We bow when we start class. We bow when we finish class. We bow to our seniors. We bow to our juniors. We bow throughout the entire class. In each bow is an explicit statement: I respect you.

Our instructor told us that in some martial arts, the masters withhold certain techniques to prevent students from usurping their power. In Taekwondo, teachers are revered and respected. Such a challenge of power is unthinkable. This attitude creates an environment full of positivity, encouragement, and growth. It is the foundation from which we train.

There is a saying that says respect must be earned. I believe that’s the wrong approach. It should be given without condition.

You control how you respond.

I once heard this story. A Taekwondo class had no heated building or smooth floor. They trained on the beach. One day was particularly bitter. Wind whipped in typical Chicago fashion. Sand was everywhere. A cold rain fell, chilling to the bone.

“What’s wrong,” asked the teacher.

“It’s cold,” a student replied.

“No,” the teacher said, “You are cold.”

Nothing could be done about the rain and cold. But the choice of response was up to them. Likewise, we cannot always control our circumstances. We can, though, choose how we react to them.

Your face can control your attitude.

“You looked like you were trying to punch through water. Relax.” I had just completed a Taekwondo promotion test and my instructor was making suggestions of where I could improve.

Then he gave some interesting advice. He told me to pay attention to my face. If my expression was relaxed, he explained, the rest of my body would also loosen up.

The next class, I tried it. As I punched, kicked, and moved, I focused on keeping my face loose. It worked. My movements felt smother and my muscles were not so tense afterwards. My face had directed the rest of my body.

But could that principle apply to life as well? Could a small part of our body steer our attitudes and feelings? I’ve found that it does. Smiling more, by the help of reminders, made me happier. In times of tension, loosening my face relaxes me. If you want to feel a certain way, try mimicking the expression associated with that feeling.

When you get stuck, keep pushing.

I had been training for months. Still, my pattern evaded me. Sometimes, I’d turn the wrong way. Other times, I’d punch when I should have blocked. Most often, I simply forgot what came next. Giving up would not have been too difficult.

At the end of class, Grandmaster Connelly told us how there are times in training when you don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere. He said that if you push forward, you’ll discover you were really close to mastering the technique.

So I kept going. And then, a few classes later, it all fell into place. I understood what to do, and I could complete the pattern without missing a step. Surprisingly, I had been much closer to getting it than I thought.

When things get tough and you want to quit, don’t. Push through. Success is likely closer than you think.

The fastest way to learn is to help others.

“This is how you do this pattern. Down-block. Punch. Turn…” In almost every class we spend time helping each other. I greatly appreciate the advise offered to me by my seniors. It’s helpful. But that doesn’t mean I should only train with those above me. I often get just as much, or more, out of working with someone of equal or lower rank.

In teaching someone else how do to do something, you internalize the lesson yourself. The beauty of this is that not only do you help yourself, but you help someone else at the same time.

The basics never go away.

About 70% of every class is the same every week – practicing the foundational techniques. We punch. We kick. We move in our stances. Without a mastery of the basics, anything more complex is impossible to do well.

Life is the same way. Skills like communication, showing respect, encouragement, listening, offering love take practice to master but are universally used. The basics are important.

Your greatest enemy is yourself.

In martial arts such as Taekwondo, you learn how to fight an aggressor or opponent. But the most deadly of all is yourself.

“I can’t do this technique.”
“I’m not good enough.”
“It’s too cold.”
“I’m going to get punched.”
“This board won’t break, and I’ll hurt my toe.”

Such limits and excuses often come from within. Yes, technique and experience is important. But confidence is what allows for mastery.

Each milestone is but the beginning of another journey.

It feels great to complete a promotion test. Getting the next level belt is a moment of pride. But it’s not the end. It’s a beginning. The journey still continues.

So often we get lost in the milestones – as if they are the whole purpose for the work. Don’t forget the journey. Life is made of the moments when you are doing.

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Martial Arts for Life. I train under Grandmaster Connelly. My friend, Patty Peebles, made this photo of me at my last promotion test.

Work is a Platform

We didn't get that much snow.

We had a blizzard last week – 20 inches of it. I still went into work. The train, despite running a touch slower, was no different than normal. What I found interesting though, was a conversation with some of the other people who came in.

We had been advised to take the day off, but were not given paid time. It was up to us to take a personal day. That wasn’t completely clear at the time though. A few coworkers of mine, who also took the ‘L’, were worried that they were wasting their time by coming in. They didn’t want to be there if they didn’t have to.

I understand that. It wouldn’t be the fairest thing if they came in, worked and got paid, but the people who didn’t come in also got paid. But behind the sentiment was something that made me think. The assumption was that the exchange has to be even. We expect an equal return for our work.

Again, I understand it. That’s part of why we work in the first place. But what if that’s the wrong reason? What if the reason we work is to make a difference in the world? What if the reason we work is to make people’s lives better? What if getting paid was simply a response to our own generosity?

I’m not advocating working for free and going bankrupt. The money is still important. I’m suggesting that if we were to place the energy we spend worrying about fairness into being generous, we would find that the fairness doesn’t really matter.

The idea of a job being a platform for making a difference is relatively new to me – at least in terms of working in an engineering firm – and I’ve got a lot to figure out still. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

It’s a choice. Like almost everything in life, how we approach our work is up to us. I have to decide everyday if I’m going to make a difference or if I’m just going to do what I’m supposed to do.

To be generous you can’t expect anything in return. You may get rewarded for it. But, just as likely, you may not – at least not immediately. That’s OK.

Generosity builds upon itself. One act will lead to another. Furthermore, your generosity inspires the generosity in others. Both Frances and Josephine remarked last week on how one act of delight created a ripple effect, which spread to more people than the original act did by itself.

Share what you have. It may have more impact than you think. On the last project I was working on, we had to do a lot of manual computer work. I despise such work nearly as much as I despise mosquitoes – OK, maybe not that much. Using my knowledge of scripts, I created a program that did much of that work automatically. It saved me a lot of time.

But then I shared it. A simple program that I spent 40 hours writing for myself ended up saving over 1000 man-hours for the group. The effect was far beyond anything I could have imagined. Moreover, others were appreciative for not having to do the manual work themselves.

Most of the time, it’s all about the little things. The humble smile can brighten someone’s day. Exceeding expectations, even in a small way, brings delight to supervisors and customers. Over time, such acts add up.

It helps to learn from other people. If you work in a big company, or a small organization for that matter, go check out a website made by a friend of mine, Rex Williams. His site, grootship, is full of all kinds of good ideas for how to use your work as a platform to make a difference.

Work is an opportunity to improve the lives of others. Even if you don’t work for a charity or as a social worker, your work helps people. For example, if you are a pillow maker, life is better because of what you do. Simple as they may be, pillows make a difference. Another example is my work. While my engineering doesn’t directly touch people’s lives, the power plants I design provide electricity so people can see each other after sunset, connect with people around the world, and read this website.

Work is a big part of our lives. Why should it be disconnected from our humanity?

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What about you? How do you bring humanity into your work? What ways do you use it to make a difference in the lives of others?

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We didn’t get that much snow. I made this photo in Chicago, Illinois – my current home.

Creating an Attitude of Delight

Hooray for Samosas!

Do you have a food that carries with it memories of a special place or time? Perhaps it was a treat from your youth. You may have had it on a vacation. Or maybe it was something shared with someone you love. Regardless, the food tastes better because of those memories. For much of my extended family, having lived in Africa at some point, samosas are such a food.

At Thanksgiving dinner, we were talking about memories from Kenya. We remembered the people, the fun things we did, and the food – especially the samosas. The conversation eventually moved on, but I didn’t forget it.

And so, at dinner the next day, a few accomplices and I brought out a plate of them. How we kept the whole thing a secret, I’m still not sure. I’m glad we did though. It was worth it.

I shall never forget that moment of delight. “Samosas!” Anticipation gave way to surprise which gave way to joy and excitement and love. Heaven itself is underwritten by moments such as these.

It was a simple gift, and it was beautiful. It also left me full of questions. What was it that made such an act so special? What can we do to make them happen more often? Can one make a life out of that? This is what I’ve come up with:

Delight comes from knowledge of others. In this case, I knew that my family loved samosas. I had the insight to know that such a gift would be a good one. To delight someone we have to know them. And doing that most often requires listening.

Yes, it’s true in my example that they were family and I should know them well. But I know them because of time spent together. I’ve invested in those relationships.

Delight is an act from within. Knowledge alone is not enough. To give the gift of delight takes action. That action isn’t haphazard or random, but is a gift of ourselves. That makes the gift far more valuable than it would be by itself.

Delight doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult. Buying the samosas cost less than $25 and only took an hour of my time to pick them up. A smile can make someone’s day, and those are free to give. The price or effort involved isn’t what makes such gifts so special. It’s the emotion and intent behind them. The thought really does count.

One of the best ways to foster an attitude of delight is to delight people. After that evening, I started looking for other opportunities. Slowly, I’m getting better at seeing and acting on them. This website is one such example. A key goal to my writing is to delight you. That’s not to say I reach that goal all the time, but practicing has helped me get better at it.

Delight is about exceeding expectations. Set the bar high. Go above it. Repeat.

Delight is the foundation for a great life. I believe that the best kind of life is one that makes other people matter. That’s what delight is all about. When you delight someone, they become important.

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Such moments are far too rare, even in my own life. I want to change that. So here’s my challenge to you. Think of a way to delight at least one person this week. It can be a friend, family member, customer, or stranger. It can be as grand or as simple as you like. I’m looking forward to hearing your stories.

I should also note that if you haven’t had a samosa yet, you are missing out. They are a delightful food. And yes, I am completely biased in this matter. For those like me that currently live outside of Kenya, you can often get them at Indian stores and restaurants.

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Hooray for Samosas! I made this photo of our dog, Prince, at home in Nakuru, Kenya.

What Values Would You Give Up?

Even a baboon won't give up his values.

In my final months in Kenya, the teachers at Rift Valley Academy gave us an exercise. They handed us nine small sheets of paper and told us to write one of our values on each of them. So we did.

They then proposed a question. If, on our way out of the room that night, someone demanded we give up three of them, which values would we give up? Since some of the values were duplicates or were just written down to be silly, this was pretty easy. We tossed the three aside.

Again they asked us a question. If, as we walked out of Centennial Hall after graduation, one of them required us to give up three more values, which ones would we surrender? This took a bit more thought, but was still doable. We now had three left.

Then it got hard. They asked us a final question. If, as we passed through the campus gates, they forced us to give up two more values, what would they be? But each of the remaining three was important. We didn’t want to give them up.

After much deliberation, we slowly put two more aside. Only one value remained, and we were left silent. “Never forget,” a teacher said, “how hard it was to give those values up. Someday, your circumstances will challenge you to do so. Remember how important your values are to you. Don’t surrender them.”

I have since forgotten many of the details of that night. I don’t even remember what value I kept in the end. But the lesson, I remember well.

Values define us. They drive our actions and guide our thinking. When things are tough, don’t give them up.

What of me? What values do I hold onto? There are five essential ones:

Love

My greatest wish for the world is that there would be more love. So important is that desire that it is the central purpose of the Bright Army. There are two particular components of love worth noting.

The first is a recognition of value. When we love someone, be it God, your neighbor, a friend, or ourselves, we acknowledge and celebrate that they have worth. And since I believe that everyone is of value, everyone is deserving of love.

The second piece is an outpouring from within. Like a spring that bubbles up to overflowing, so is love. It comes from our best selves and benefits all that it touches.

Generosity

Generosity is a manifestation of love. Things like money are a common form of generosity, but I can offer far more. I want to give the world my best. You deserve it. Writing, work, relationships, smiles, and this website are some expressions of that generosity.

In addition, I want to inspire other people to give. Everyone has a gift to offer the world, and it saddens me when such talents are ignored or cast aside. That includes you. I hope you give what you have to offer.

Gratitude

I am extremely privileged. Many cannot even dream of having the education, income, and opportunities that I have. I am grateful for them. People love and respect me – especially my lovely wife Sarah. I’m thankful for that. Dwelling on the blessings puts insignificant things in perspective, brings me joy, and makes me responsible.

From all that I have been given, much is required. That’s a great honor. And so I strive to appreciate and thank people for what they do for me. “Thank you” may be one of the most powerful phrases in all of language. Also I want to use the opportunities that I have to benefit others. Living a life that gives back is the best way to express my gratitude.

Purpose

I don’t want life to happen to me, but I want to happen to life. It’s too short to waste. And so I seek to act with purpose.

The first way is to have an overarching vision for my life. I want my life to be intentionally meaningful. Spending time thinking about who I want to be and establishing goals for the future are some ways that help me do this. Then I act on those thoughts and make those goals happen.

The second area touches the everyday. All activities should contribute to my broader vision or add value in some way, either to others or to myself. Writing, building relationships, learning, thinking, helping others are some important ways of doing this. But so are things like sleeping and relaxing. My aim is to be intentional with how I use my time.

Freedom

While I accept that I will always be dependent on people – and that’s a good thing – I am still my own person. Likewise, others are their own person as well. That’s why I value the freedom of personality, freedom of action, and freedom of others.

Freedom of personality means that I decide who I want to be. As a human being, I have a fundamental and unique value. I am who I am and not anyone else. It’s up to me to determine my values and attitudes toward life.

Out of that comes the freedom to choose my actions. That is a responsibility to myself and who I am. And as the one who made the choice, I openly accept the consequences that come from it.

As much as I value my own freedom, I treasure the freedom of others. They are valuable too. I seek to avoid actions that limit other people’s freedom. For example, I am able to slander anyone I want – it’s free speech after all – but doing so takes away their freedom. Also, I strive to do things that increase the freedom of others – especially those that have little or none to start with.

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Those are my values. What about you? What values will you never give up?

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Even a baboon won’t give up his values. I made this photo at Baboon Cliff in Nakuru, Kenya.

A Declaration of Intent

HFLK - Love, Peace, and Yogurt

All people have fundamental value. Such value is not given by status or wealth, but by nature of being human. And when we live out of that value, life is richer, more beautiful, and full of love. When we live out of that love, we honor the story of our humanity.

The human story is priceless. And yet, we waste it. We toss it away like a piece of rubbish. We have so much to offer the world. And when we do, not only do we live better lives, others do as well. But we don’t. Why?

I’m not willing to put up with the idea that we can’t. The consequences of our non-action are too catastrophic for that. Because we waste our opportunity to live the human story, millions can’t. We take away the choice of others because of our own choices. That’s not acceptable to me.

It makes me mad. Not an impulsive and flashy anger – it’s deeper than that. This is an anger that compels me to act. It demands that I do something to right the wrong that I see.

But it isn’t all anger and energy. It’s a deeps sadness too. I’m hurt to see so many people live lives that are broken. Tears fill my eyes when I see the consequences of our poor decisions, of my poor decisions.

For I’m just as guilty. My lifestyle hurts others. And so my anger and sadness point, to some extent, to me. That’s unacceptable. I choose to change.

And if I can change, so can others. If I can figure out how to live a life of humanity, so can everyone. If I help myself understand, I can help others to understand – I can help you to understand.

And so,

To all men, women and children…
To the orphan, the refugee, and the widow…
To the poor, the rich, and all in between…
And to you…

I declare love.

The Bright Army is not an army of violence and hate, but of hope and love. Love underwrites its mission. It seeks to:

Learn and explore what it means to see the world through the eyes of humanity

What does it look like to live a life through the eyes of humanity? What does it mean to see others – to go beyond just looking at them? How does one live a life full of constant joy and gratitude? What are the rituals that we can set up in our lives to make this attitude a default?

My experience in Kenya provides a good foundation to answering such questions. And I count myself privileged to have witnessed such tremendous humanity – even in the face of poverty and oppression. It was beautiful. But now I want to go deeper.

To do so requires intentioned study. I will study individuals who have modeled a lifestyle of humanity, research thinkers who ask similar questions, and converse with those who live that story in different ways. But learning is more than just knowledge. It requires a process of application and practice. I intend to do that too.

Help others to live and celebrate the human story

Moments of joy and acts of love are something to be cherished – something to celebrate. I want to celebrate them. Part of that is recognizing them and pointing them out. It’s about highlighting the stories and honoring those people in them.

But the best way to celebrate is to be active, to share the human story with other people. For in giving to others, we so honor the gift we have been given. In helping others to live it, we live it as well.

Make other people matter

Living in humanity is all about people. In particular, it’s about making people matter. Everyone deserves dignity and respect. We all share the same humanity.

One such people group deserving focus is the poor. So often their stories are untold. They are unseen, even though they make up the majority of the earth’s population. I want to make them seen. I want to make them matter.

There are several ways of doing that, and the first is telling their stories. Stories, when told in a certain way, give dignity to their subjects. They put a face on those that so often are just lumped into a large number. Besides giving dignity, stories enrich our lives as well. They connect us to other human beings and make us part of something bigger.

The second way is exploring methods of seeing and helping the poor. I am not referring to the often used approach of throwing money at them and claiming to have all the answers. Rather, I seek a methodology of listening and understanding and humility.

The last and most essential way is forming relationships. So many people know about the poor. So few know them. That is a loss to us. And so I want to get to know the poor. I want to see the world through their eyes.

These principles also apply to other people in our lives – friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors. Telling stories, listening, and building relationships are at the heart of the human story. They convey significance.

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While these goals are simple, there is a lot behind them. They don’t always come easy, but they are worthwhile. They make this great adventure worth undertaking.

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I made this photo at Hope for Life Kenya. They offer food and job training to orphans and unemployed youth in Nakuru, Kenya.

Fighting for the Human Story

Hope for Life Kenya

It’s the kindness of a stranger. Like when a man journeying to a distant land sees another, lying bleeding on the roadside. And though the other, by all measure of race and nationality, ought to be his enemy, the man leans down with a touch of compassion. He dresses the wounds with his fine linen and carries him to the nearest town. From him flows a river of love and generosity.

It’s the look between lovers. Like when a couple, sitting alone in the morning stillness, chance a glance at each other. Eyes meet. And in that moment, which stretches to eternity, all of life and beauty is exchanged. It bears depth: a thousand hurts and ten thousand forgivenesses, a thousand tears and ten thousand smiles, a thousand fears and ten thousand hopes.

It’s the reunion of brothers. Like when two men who have been torn apart by war and strife are joined again. In an instant, the pains of separation, hurts from deep injuries, and scars born of imprisonment and torture fade away. In their place come tears of joy which fall upon the ground as a blessed rain.

So are the stories, rich and beautiful. And though they have not necessarily happened to us, they are still ours. They call to us, speaking to our humanity. In them is hope, joy, and love. They are the human story.

If only we lived in that story more often. Would not our lives be as beautiful as the dawn, as warm as a cup of chai, and as rich as the noblest of kings? Yet, we often choose not to.

It’s bad enough that our own lives are worse off. Sadly, the costs don’t end there. Our choices deny the choice of others. Because we don’t live the human story, others can’t.

Because we don’t, children become slaves. From an early age, thousands upon thousands are forced to labor in the most dark and desolate places on earth. They risk burning, cutting, crushing, and death for wages that many would consider a rounding error.

Because we don’t, war ravages community. Deep bonds give way to mistrust. Fear replaces fellowship. Death takes the place of life. And even as the fighting ends, painful wounds remain. Their scars bear fruit to strife and hate for generations.

Because we don’t, men lose their dignity. Humanity stripped away, they become, in the eyes of the world, far less even than an animal. Forced to beg for crumbs and pennies, their talents go wasted. Their art, a gift to the world, is cast aside like a rare gem in a rubbish heap.

And so it comes back to us. The question is ours: which story will we choose? It is a choice after all.

  • We can choose hope or we can choose fear.
  • We can choose love or we can choose indifference.
  • We can choose joy or we can choose dispair.
  • We can choose the human story or we can ignore it.

My hope is that we will choose the human story. I think it’s a better story. I think it’s worth fighing for. Here’s some of what that looks like:

Fighting: Everything worthwhile requires effort. So it is with the human story. At times it is unnatural. Living in it goes against the grain of many powerful structures in our society. And so we must be active. Being passive won’t change anything.

Human: The human story is all about people. It is one of relationships and community. It’s about making people matter.

Story: Stories show us how to live and connect us with other human beings. Sadly, many of them are cast aside. Because their owner is too poor or too insignificant, we ignore them. That is a loss to us. So many of them are beautiful and deserve telling.

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Fighting for the human story is a continual process. It’s a journey. And that journey is at the heart of the Bright Army.

I hope you will join me on it.

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The photo was taken at Hope for Life Kenya. They offer food and job training to orphans and unemployed youth in Nakuru, Kenya.