The Voices began early in life. I cannot remember when they weren’t with me. At first, The Voices came from living, breathing people.
They were directed at the skinny kid with the big head, the one that had to wear both suspenders and a belt to hold up his pants. An easy target for the bullies, since he was the smallest kid in school, on the playground, in the neighborhood and in the house. The location made little difference, the bullseye was still there.
Eventually I learned that playing the clown brought some relief. If they were laughing at me, they weren’t hitting me. It worked most of the time. Over time, though, even that drew out The Voices. Now they were the teachers or my mother, that did not approve of the irreverent kid with the authority issues. The fact that I excelled in the technical aspects of my classes were overshadowed by the poor grades in deportment. The A’s didn’t matter if there was a D in conduct. I was told, in private and in front of the entire class on more than one occasion in jr. high, that I was never going to amount to anything. The Voices became internalized. They were there all the time, every day. There wasn’t a refuge that allowed escape.
Over time, I ceased being the scrawny kid. Though I didn’t break 100 pounds until my sophomore year, I made up for it quickly. Over the course of my junior year in high school I gained almost 50 pounds and somehow my shoulders and chest seemed to almost double in width. By the time I was a senior, I had grown something else – a very bad temper with a very short fuse. My visits to the principal or counselor were now, as often as not, the result of knocking someone on their ass rather than cracking one joke too many in band class. The physical bullying pretty much evaporated, but The Voices never left.
In junior college, I came across an ad for Aikido classes being taught on campus. I’d developed an interest in martial arts early in life, mostly as a result of Diana Rigg appearing in The Avengers kicking the daylights out of the bad guys using Kung Fu (at least they called it that.) Though I’d expressed an interest while still in grade school, I was obviously, according to my mother, just going to get tied up in a contract and stop going to class, leaving my parents on the hook for payments. I wouldn’t be good enough and I’d quit. The Voices were overjoyed!
So now, out of the house and paying the fees myself, I stepped into a dojo (in this case a meeting room on campus) for the first time. One night in a gi convinced me that my interest was not a passing fancy. Though styles and teachers have changed over time, the martial arts have been my touchstone ever since that first night. The fear that went with being the target of the bullies went away. The violent temper is now kept in line, though that part is still a struggle on some days.
Four decades later, thirty one of which as a member of the Kokondo system, I stepped off of the shuttle in West Hartford, Connecticut for this year’s National Seminar. Though I’ve managed to lose count, my thinking is that this was probably about the twentieth one I’ve attended. What made this one so much different is what was waiting for me. I was testing for the rank of Godan – a Master rank in our system. The Voices love tagging along to these events.
“You’re an imposter.” “You don’t belong here.” “You have no reason whatsoever to think you deserve any of this.” They are a constant, distracting companion on the mats and off. In many cases, I’m fighting The Voices harder than I am the person across from me.
“You’re going to make a fool of yourself in front of everyone.” “You’re too damned old for this.” The Voices keep sleep from coming or interrupt the few times I am able to doze off.
During the sessions they are relentless. “Look at these people. You are out of your league.” When a Master is demonstrating a technique they form a chorus. “Do you honestly think you will ever possess that level of skill?” “Are you delusional?” When we get into the later sessions and the fatigue sets in, it becomes a symphony. “Just quit.” “Stay in the room next session.” “Save yourself the embarrassment.”
Then the testing begins. The Voices are as loud as if there were someone on each side of my head screaming at the top of their lungs. “You just botched a green belt technique you’ve done hundreds of times, dumbass!” “Hey stupid, you stepped forward on the wrong foot. Way to go!” “Aren’t you supposed to know this kata?” “Did the term kote-gime get erased from your vocabulary, idiot?” “Maybe if you just skip the banquet nobody will notice.”
I go to the banquet. The Voices don’t care. “At least you’ll have a nice meal to show for it.”
My promotion is announced. “PPppfftt… They feel sorry for the old man.”
At home after the return flight and reading the congratulatory emails, texts and Facebook messages I sit on the loveseat crying at the goodwill and respect offered by my friends, family and fellow Kokondoka (God, I hope Masters are allowed to cry). The Voices are relentless. “You think they really feel that way about you? Get real.” “Maybe you should just send that piece of Shihan’s belt back with a letter of apology.”
The Voices have been a lifelong adversary. Unfortunately they probably will not go silent until my heart does the same. The wellness classes or other attempts I’ve made to learn how to handle The Voices give me the solid advice to “just let it go.” If it were that damned simple do they think I’d still be having arguments with my mother three years after her death?
Now I face even more opportunities for The Voices to inflict their torture. I am now responsible, more than ever, for being one of the faces of our system. I now, more than ever, have to be an example of expertise and spirit. I now, more than ever, have to be one of those people the other Kokondoka look to for energy and inspiration. I now, more than ever, must do my level best to get a little better every day. I now, more than ever, must honor the trust of the other Masters and not prove them wrong in their decision. I now, more than ever, have to honor the memory of Shihan Arel and Master Longo.
To do any less allows The Voices to win.
And that will not happen.