“Obligation” has been the word on my mind this week. We seem to increasingly be living in a world that promises us personal choice and relegates obligation to the dustbin of history. A television ad for an online university brought this to my attention recently. The actor/student in the ad states, “I want classes I control, not lectures I have to sit through.” How exactly he already knows what he needs to learn, I’m not sure. And, even if he thinks he knows, is he not discounting the fact that someone older and wiser just might have something else of value to teach him.

Requiring that students study a broad range of material in certain ways accomplishes two important things. First, it establishes standards that we can expect and rely on. Imagine, for instance, if doctors no longer took the obligatory courses in med school and just cut straight to the “good bits.” Or what if soldiers no longer had to go through basic training? But knowing all the material is important for another reason as well. If we don’t learn what our teachers have to show us, whether we need it or not, that knowledge can get lost indefinitely.

This is particularly true in the world of martial arts. None of us have been forced to train and we all start out studying primarily for selfish reasons; physical fitness, self-defense, etc. As such, there is no legal or ethical reason why we can’t structure our training and our learning any way we want. In the end, we are the only ones who will benefit or be hurt by these choices. I have always advocated finding a variety of ways to train but they should all serve a single purpose. And I don’t suggest people jump around from style to style because, in my experience, you have to spend a lot of time working on anything if you want to become excellent.

But, what if you don’t want to be excellent. What if you just want to have fun and sample a little of this and that. No one is going to stop you but consider this idea. You don’t just have an obligation to yourself to be as good as you can be. You also have an obligation to all those who came before you to remember, practice, and possibly pass along what you have learned. This obligation to others can be a very powerful motivator, particularly when you are lacking in personal reasons to train. Martial arts have always been handed down from person to person, elder to younger, via word of mouth. Very few books come even remotely close to encapsulating the complexity of ideas that reside in each style or system. If you stop, everything that you know stops with you.

You might say, “There are others who are more dedicated that I am and they will be the keepers of the fire.” But, if we all said this, real knowledge would be lost forever. And, in making this statement you discount the fact that you may have seen, learned, and understood things in ways that others have not. You may know more than you know and that knowledge is precious.

So, if you find yourself unmotivated in the next week, consider the history and lineage of your style. Consider all the people who have learned, trained, and taught what you now practice. See yourself amongst their ranks and accept that responsibility. You have an obligation to those who have trained you as well as to those who you will teach some day.  This sense of being an important part of history motivates me at times when my personal choice cannot. I hope it helps you as well.

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