It’s taken me a while to rally myself to write about the fourth Jidokwan Tenet: Love Widely. To be candid, the sentiment makes me a little uneasy, and I’ve had to think about it and let it slowly permeate my spirit, and only gradually has it felt more like a natural part of me.
I know that some RVTKD students struggle with certain Tenets. More than one of you has expressed reservations about “Loyalty to Country” because of the off-putting hypernationalism so pervasive among certain elements of our society. Others who had a hard family background—parents who were physically or emotionally abusive, for instance, or who used damaging substances—may have a hard time accepting the idea of embracing “Respect the Elder.”
Although these feelings are understandable and legitimate, the struggle to understand each Tenet, and to find the wisdom in each and apply it to our own lives, can be a constructive and cathartic experience. Whether we struggle with individual Tenets or not, they are an important framework, both individually and collectively, to understanding Jidokwan. They should be an important way of shaping our practice and our lives outside the dojang.
As an only child, an introvert, and someone who’s definitely not a hugger, I am not usually comfortable with public expression of sentiments like love. I support the practice of being good to everyone around me, but I’d usually rather express it via concepts like recycling, holding doors for people, using my turn signals, supporting various causes and projects, and so forth. Like many introverts, I’m very comfortable expressing affection for, and doing selfless actions for, my closest friends and family. . . but EVERYONE?! What does that even mean?
Two insights lead me to write about Love Widely today, both of which have enriched my sense of self and changed the way I relate to those around me. The first is inspired, as are so many things these days, by the COVID-19 pandemic. When this disease first showed up on my radar, Julie and I were in Cambodia, comparatively close to the initial outbreak. In late January and early February, we had no idea what would ultimately happen, but we kept an eye on the news and practiced what we thought were common sense precautions for what we (wrongly, in hindsight) interpreted as one of those disconcerting little blips that pops up from time to time, usually in a remote location. The vast majority of tourists in Cambodia are from China, and there are lots from other East Asian countries (only about 7% are from the US, and another 15% from Europe) so we knew many of the people around us could conceivably been carriers. We were already on yellow alert regarding many matters of basic hygiene, since we were already being disciplined about steps to avoid food poisoning and other diseases found in the developing world. This emerging news story further heightened our awareness of disease vectors and prevention in the part of the world where we were guests.
Face Masks as “Love Widely”
One immediately obvious trend, impossible to miss even for the most oblivious traveler (of which there are many), was that in all parts of the country, there were far more East and Southeast Asians wearing masks than western tourists. No doubt mask use has only grown since February, but although mask wearing was much less prevalent in smaller cities and villages (maybe 5-10% of everyone we saw, and those mostly in high contact jobs) it was much closer to universal in Phnom Penh, the capital, densely populated with a population of about 2 million. I’d guess when we flew into the country in January, 40-50% of all people in the capital wore masks on the street; when we flew out in mid February, it was probably over 80%.
Very few of the westerners (by which I mean white westerners, i.e. the most obvious tourists) were wearing masks. Maybe 5% if I had to guess, I’m sure it wasn’t more, and it’s pretty likely it was fewer. We weren’t among the 5%, because at the time we were insufficiently educated and thought “masks don’t protect us, just those around us, so it’s not necessary because we’re not sick.” I’m a little embarrassed to write that now, because it’s so obviously wrong headed, but at the time asymptomatic transmission wasn’t well understood, and even the high R0 wasn’t yet being widely reported.
Anyway, the key observation is that it was totally obvious to everyone from the region that they should be wearing masks, and that there was just no question about whether you should be or not—if you were a good citizen, you just did. I’m guessing that by the time we left, the only Cambodians not wearing masks were people who simply didn’t have enough money to buy them, or were in public-facing jobs in fancy hotels and restaurants and were encouraged not to in order to avoid scaring guests.
Why were all the Asians wearing masks and why weren’t the westerners? For us, and presumably most of the others, ignorance was a big part of it. That’s not the whole answer, however, because at the time, Cambodians didn’t have access to any more information about the nature of this specific virus than we did. I think the main reason was that in much of East Asia (and to a certain degree, Southeast Asia) social conditioning makes people place the well being of the larger society higher than their own well being. If something is good for the nation, good for your neighbors, good for your coworkers and the random people you pass on the street, there’s a strong sense of obligation to do it. People who go out of their way to help others aren’t considered “heroes” as they would be here: it’s just normal.
When we left Cambodia, we flew Korean Airlines and changed planes in Seoul, which was just emerging as one of the hottest hotspots in the world, right after Wuhan, which had been shut down by the Chinese government. We wore masks on the flights1 and noticed all but 10-12 of our fellow passengers—all westerners, unsurprisingly—were also wearing masks.
Seeing this bizarre (at the time) sight made me suddenly understand in an instant: wearing masks in public, not to protect oneself, but to protect everyone, is what “Love Widely” looks like on a societal level, and that kind of social consciousness is one of the ideas our Jidokwan Tenet is trying to express. For many of us in the West, with Judeo-Christian values at the root of our laws and ethical structures, Love Widely has obvious connections to Christian virtues (the actual ones, not the ones espoused by so many in the US in the 20th and 21st centuries). In our Valley, with its “Visualize World Peace” and “Coexist” bumper stickers, it may evoke connotations of hippies and progressive academics. But in the Confucian and Buddhist-influenced cultures from which this Tenet originates, I think it’s something more fundamental and decent, that doesn’t require a religious basis with an ulterior motive like getting into heaven. It’s less lofty, but no less profound. Doing something that obviously benefits everyone around us, even if it may be uncomfortable and take a little getting used to, is an example of one practical, real-world way to Love Widely.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
With some reluctance, I recently watched the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? about the life, television show, and public work of Mr. Rogers. Everyone who’s seen this movie, regardless of how jaded, intellectual, or debauched, always seems to love it. I assumed there’d be a sweet moment or two mixed with lots of schmaltz, and it would be a generally favorable but forgettable hour and a half. There probably aren’t many people who care less about children and child development, so I thought I’d trade some boredom and eye rolling for a few moments or two that I’d grudgingly admit were true and good.
Instead, I’m not afraid to say that this was one of the most moving, thought-provoking, and challenging movies I’ve seen in many years. More than anything else I’ve seen on a screen in recent memory, I’ve found myself thinking about this movie, and what it means for the way I live in the world day after day. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’ve probably thought about it at least once a day, and often more than that, since I watched it in early April. I know this admission will cost me in cool points for some who haven’t seen the movie, but I’m pretty sure that anyone who actually has seen it will know what I’m talking about.
For those of us who aren’t actual saints, and maybe even for those who are, it’s almost unimaginable to listen to, care about, and speak kindly to every single person, no exceptions. When we’re accustomed to seeing the Prius with the “Practice Kindness” bumper sticker cut us off in traffic, and then the driver gives us the finger, it’s easy to get desensitized and become cynical about those who make such claims. It becomes nothing short of stunning to witness someone genuinely practice universal kindness. After I watched the video, I found myself speechless for the rest of the night, overcome by the miracle of a 30+ year public life in which Rogers was unfailingly kind and empathetic and sincere with literally everyone.
The cynical among us will say, as I surely would have before watching the movie, that it’s easy to look good on film with a sympathetic cut. But I’ve read a number of interviews and profiles since then—from intellectually rigorous publications, I’ll add, that aren’t afraid to tell it like it is, and would be delighted to uncover hypocrisy or dirty secrets—and I haven’t seen a single account that said there was any gap whatsoever between his television persona as “Mr. Rogers” and his lived life as Fred Rogers.2
Without descending into hagiography, I’ll say that if everyone acted more like Mr. Rogers, the world would be better, it’s as simple as it is indisputable. If you haven’t seen it already, I’d recommend that if you do, it will probably make your life better, even if just a little. Most of us would benefit personally, in our happiness and sense of self worth, if we tried to enact some of these beautiful ideals.
When someone pursues a single notion as singlemindedly as Mr. Rogers, it might be tempting to think the behavior is just hard wired, that there’s no other way he could be. After watching the film, and confirming with a fair amount of other reading, I conclude that that’s not true in his case. Instead, his actions were highly calculated and required sustained and conscientious self-discipline. Rather than enjoying Buddha-like equanimity in all situations, he could get quite angry about the bad behavior of his fellow humans, but he was able to detach from the anger, let it go, and act with kindness and empathy regardless of the anger. How did he do this?
Although he wasn’t a martial arts practitioner, some elements of Fred Rogers’ daily routine will feel familiar to us. His physical self-discipline may be the most outwardly similar sign: he got up at 4:30 virtually every morning to swim laps, and as a result, he weighed exactly 143 pounds throughout his entire adult life (he was six feet tall, so he was certainly fit and trim). Especially for martial artists, there are obvious similarities between sustained physical training at this level and the self-discipline it took to never once utter words in anger or abuse the powerful position he attained in his career. It’s not that the swimming created this level of self-control, but it surely went hand in hand with it, sustained it, and accustomed him to prevailing over difficulty and discomfort.
He was also an ordained minister, and although he never had a congregation in a church didn’t use Christian language or explicit connections to Christianity on his show, he enacted the highest ideals of that tradition to truly Love Widely as its founder did.3 If you watch the scene where he testifies on behalf of PBS before a hostile Senate subcommittee, and over the course of a few minutes singlehandedly persuades a key Senator to switch his position, you’ll see the power of listening with empathetic attention, then arguing with love and truth. Love gave him the power to speak to powerful people without wavering, and his sincere and open appeal defused a confrontation and gave him a peaceful outcome that strengthened both sides. That’s what we strive to do as martial artists, and embracing his opponent instead of striving against him was what led to the breakthrough.
Love Widely in the Martial Arts
The above two examples may sound well and good, and who among us doesn’t think it’s good to be a better person when we can? But you might also observe, “Not everything that’s a good or constructive idea makes it into the five Tenets of Jidokwan. There’s only five, so why this one in particular?” Here are a few thoughts about why Love Widely isn’t just a good idea, it’s appropriate for martial arts enthusiasts:
- When practicing an outwardly violent activity, it’s good to be mindful of the friendly, supporting nature that we cultivate toward our fellow students in the dojang. For example, in writing about other Tenets, I’ve talked about how “Friendship Among Peers” helps us not take it personally in those unusual, but not unprecedented, occasions when we’re accidentally popped in the face or ribs by an uncontrolled technique when we’re sparring. As people who carry powerful, dangerous skills with us everywhere we go, this Tenet reminds us to be generous and forgiving when we walk outside the walls of the dojang.
- It takes self-discipline to Love Widely in a world when there are so many daily happenings that might otherwise make us angry or cynical. Virtually every interview with someone who knew Fred Rogers will mention the tremendous self-discipline that made him able to give and empathize in virtually every interpersonal interaction. Self-discipline is a fundamental tool of all martial arts training, so it makes sense that those of us who practice regularly have the potential to be attentive to our own behaviors and diligent about improving ourselves when we can, even if it’s difficult and requires persistence.
- Because of a misconception among some percentage of the populace—that martial arts practitioners are testosterone-drenched bros, self-absorbed weirdos, or violent macho men—it’s in our interest to show the opposite whenever we can. The contemporary pervasiveness of MMA, and other combat styles that aren’t infused with any ethical code, has deservedly increased this false impression, but it also existed long before the rise of MMA. This is true both in the US and in, for example, Korea, where Taekwondo and other combat arts were long considered the realm of gangsters and other ruffians. This perception endured among many in the ROK until recently, where the growth of Kukkiwon-style TKD has led to great success in promoting Taekwondo as a sporting endeavor like soccer or little league baseball.
Love Widely may come naturally to those of us who live in the Valley and say “I’m a lover not a fighter,” and really mean it! It may make others uncomfortable, or it may not seem to follow from anything intrinsic to martial training. Embracing the challenge of giving love without distinction not only makes the world better, but through the difficulty of constant vigilance and training, has the potential to change us as individuals in remarkable and gratifying ways.
If you’ve read this far, you have earned this secret knowledge: a documentary that reveals an additional, little-known connection between Mr. Rogers and combat training.
1 At that time, we still didn’t realize masks were necessary, but we wore them to express solidarity with people around us and to show respect for the culture where we were guests. An Airbus A380 has 407 seats (per the KAL website) and it was striking to see. It reminded me of that famous black-and-white photo of a fifties movie theater, where everyone in the audience is wearing 3D glasses.
2 I don’t mean to suggest that Fred Rogers was a saintly figure who led a flawless life. He did a few things that may have been ahead of the curve for his time, but which we might not feel great about today. In perhaps the best known example of this, he told a gay cast member that he didn’t have any problem whatsoever with him being gay, but that he had to remain in the closet—Rogers even encouraged him to marry a woman, which he did, with predictable results—if he wanted to be a prominent cast member on a children’s TV show. We might applaud Rogers’ tolerance of sexual identity far beyond the 1980s norm, but we may wish he’d taken it a notch or two farther and used it as a teaching moment on the show instead of hiding it. That said, I’ve always thought that people’s ideals and conduct should be judged in the context of their historical period, not held to the most rigorous standards of a more advanced time. I once heard overheard a conversation between two Williams College professors: “If veganism becomes universal in 50 years, and it’s considered unimaginably barbaric to kill animals for food and eat their flesh, are people going to say, ‘Well, Barack Obama enacted some good policies and all, but he ate meat so he was obviously a profoundly flawed person. It’s not like vegan thought was only known at the fringes of society at that point, so there’s really no excuse. . . .'”
3 Because of the radical religious right, Christianity has strong negative connotations for many, but I’m talking about the vision expressed in the actual words of the New Testament. 2000 years ago, it was revolutionary among religions for its kindness, radical inclusivity, and other qualities that good people in any age can get behind.