“Do not make yourself vulnerable,” the martial-arts instructor began. “Scan your environment for threats. Find your exits.” His teenage students at the gym hung on his words. Each one looked vulnerable in that awkward, adolescent way — including my son, Khalil. When fights break out at his high school, students crowd around and record videos to circulate on social media. After seeing a grainy clip of a vicious hallway brawl, I’d signed him up for this class. The instructor had assured me that learning martial arts helps calm anxiety and deter aggression. The most dangerous men he knows, he said, are also the most peaceful. I was intrigued. But now, as I watched Khalil practice throwing punches to the face, I doubted whether I’d made the right decision.
I mentioned my misgivings to Sy, The Sun’s editor, and he shared with me a true story by Terry Dobson that appeared in the magazine more than thirty years ago: Dobson, an American aikido student, was riding the subway in Japan when a drunk and belligerent laborer boarded the train and began harassing passengers. Dobson was about to put the angry fellow in his place when an old man, sitting nearby, asked the laborer what he’d been drinking. Sake, the laborer replied, cursing him. The old man calmly spoke of the pleasure of drinking sake with his wife in their garden every evening. The drunk man said he had no wife and no home. The old man said, “That is a very difficult predicament, indeed. Why don’t you sit down here and tell me about it?” Within minutes the laborer was lying on the seat, his head in the old man’s lap. Dobson realized that he had just seen the true essence of aikido in action.
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The other day, driving Khalil to martial-arts class, I was silent, my teary eyes hidden behind sunglasses. Usually I consider car rides an opportunity to draw my captive teenager into a conversation, but that day my mind was racing with everything I wished I had and hadn’t said during a painful argument with someone. My son stared out the window, a bored expression on his face. He didn’t say a word until I parked outside the gym. Then he turned toward me, put his hand on my shoulder, and asked how I was doing. It eased my mind to see him let down his guard and extend compassion — to show a different kind of strength.
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