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Superhero in Our Midst

If you’re ever looking for an illustration of how our physical practice translates into the mental and emotional discipline that leads to success elsewhere, you’d be hard pressed to find a better one.

In our Tae Kwon Do dojang, we don’t usually trumpet the achievements of individuals when they do remarkable things outside of class. The people who train with us, and especially those who reach the advanced ranks, are generally a pretty accomplished lot, and it’d be a distraction to officially acknowledge everyone’s personal milestones: a wedding or birth here, a new job there, an award within their field. Rather than try to decide what’s worthy of mention in class, I usually congratulate people privately and leave it at that. Over the years I’ve been teaching at RVTKD, I’ve seen many of my fellow practitioners accomplish impressive and wonderful things, and it’s one of the reasons I’m proud to know and train with all of you.

More often, the achievements we recognize in class are directly related to training. These are familiar to anyone who practices with us for a while: a promotion in rank, sharing knowledge of a new form or technique, noting improvement in a technique or concept that was previously out of reach. Although none of these are the end of the journey, they give us a sense of satisfaction, which in turn provides encouragement that sustains us through the trials we experience in training year after year.

That said, there are sometimes events I can’t help but mention—not because they’re more important than others, but because they exemplify the way martial arts training sometimes becomes indistinguishable with a person’s life work. In other words, the border between inside/outside the dojang becomes less distinct. The values and traits we train to develop in ourselves manifest outwardly in the larger world. In the example I’m about to mention, this manifestation is both very public and very meaningful.

If you haven’t seen it, take a few minutes to read the Rolling Stone article here. It describes two landmark court cases in our own commonwealth, one led by black belt and RVTKD partner Luke Ryan. The story is sensational and fascinating, but rather than recap it here (that’s what the link is for) let me just say that the case required years of tireless research and legal maneuvering, and it was ultimately victorious. The result was that many thousands of wrongly convicted individuals have had convictions overturned following years of an astonishingly corrupt and incompetent failure of government.

I’ve known Luke for decades, and during the course of this case, I saw firsthand the amount of diligence, courage, and ingenuity it took to pursue it against a determined government cover-up. At the time I remember telling him “This is just like something out of [the HBO serial] The Wire” because of the high stakes and the intensity of the investigation. He replied “There are some days I feel nervous about turning the ignition when I start my car in the morning.”

This saga is relevant to our study, and worth acknowledging by all of us, for two reasons:

  1. The focus, diligence, creativity, and fearlessness Attorney Ryan showed in pursuing this case to its conclusion are exactly the same qualities we cultivate by studying Tae Kwon Do. In class we practice punches, footwork, side kicks, and the like, but if you’re ever looking for an illustration of how our physical practice translates into the mental and emotional discipline that leads to success elsewhere, you’d be hard pressed to find a better one. It would be a stretch to give Tae Kwon Do all the credit for him possessing these traits: he surely had some combination of the required values, talent, and drive before he ever set foot on the training floor. But I don’t think it’d be presumptuous to say that people who value those things and seek to cultivate them within themselves find fertile ground in our dojang.
  2. The fifth and final tenet of Ji Do Kwan is “Practice Justice.” For many of us, this tenet invites philosophical reflection about what it means to “practice justice” in our lives. For Attorney Ryan, it is literally his life’s work. The job of a defense lawyer is to protect citizens from injustices that can steal years of a defendant’s life—whether through incorrect interpretation of facts, false charges, or at times when the agents of government are corrupt and deliberately unjust.

Some who study a martial art fantasize about the day that they can be like Batman and fight crime in the streets. A few use the concepts to fight crime in a more realistic and meaningful way. Luke Ryan is one of those, demonstrating exactly what it means to Practice Justice every day and to the best of his ability.

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