Chī diǎn kǔ – To Eat Bitter
There is a fun movie that I sometimes play for my martial arts students named Iron and Silk. While at once playful and light hearted it does a great job of exposing some of the cultural differences that have existed, even into modern times, between the West and Chinese tradition. As the character of Teacher Mark begins teaching English he also studies Kung Fu from Sifu Pan, a master who plays himself in the movie. There are many wonderful moments throughout the film, but perhaps my favorite is when Sifu Pan is rejecting Mark’s request for training, the final question being; “Can you eat bitter?”
While there are some valuable improvements in modern education that use terms like ‘child-centered’ and student directed learning, we also risk making the error of giving kids the impression that they are the center of their Universe. Martial arts training is by nature tough, and it should be. One must condition the body to be stronger, to take blows without injury, to push beyond ordinary limits and perform with grace under pressure. Additionally, wilderness skills require a foundation of perseverance, the ability to choose happiness in the face of physical challenge and emotional stress, to find humor and peace in the uncomfortable, to see good in the midst of rain, cold, heat, exhaustion, long distances, and hard work. What is it that traditional Chinese people found so valuable in hard work that the phrase became a virtue to be passed on and highlighted from generation to generation? Have we done a good job of teaching our own children to ‘Eat Bitter’?
You can probably imagine the difficulty of operating a wilderness and martial arts school. The classes are engineered to enlarge comfort zones, to increase boundaries and potential, to overcome limitations. The other day I had to ask my wife, “Am I just getting older or are the kids whining more than ever these days?” And it has financial overtones. Do I run a camp that sticks to the mission, mixing in fun and social elements and games and entertainment BUT STAYS TRUE to a program that makes kids eat some bitter? Or do I sell out and just cater to their needs and stay away from things that make camp drudgery for them in the short term? Well I know the answer, haha, the question isn’t really there, but the same thing happens in martial arts class. I hear the most stupid things sometimes from people; “Well, we quit because we just really wanted to see more belt promotions, you know, he’s only tested twice in the last year so we’re going somewhere else?” Are you kidding me? My favorite, “You made my kid do pushups.” Ok. “This is hard work, I mean, it’s fun and all, but I think my son just needs a little more playtime.” I’m feeling like some old stick in the mud at this point. And you’ll notice here that my frustration is usually more with the parent than the kid. You see, kids don’t know any better. Like a horse that eats corn until it dies, kids feed the comfort mechanism to their own peril. My 3 year old daughter would eat candy until she fell over and croaked, if it were up to her. But it’s not.
In some ways we have gotten backwards. There is a school that used to visit Turtle Island where the students give the teachers ‘grades’, and this feedback determines whether or not the teacher returns to their job. So the teachers are afraid to discipline the students and rely on us wilderness counselors to do that, which I gladly provide in a professional and appropriate way (that ends up garnering more respect and personal admiration from the kids anyway). Parents listen to a kid’s camp experience and hear, “It was really hot and we had to walk a long way, I don’t want to do that again” and somehow hear that as a negative thing. I would say, awesome kid, way to drive on, guess where you’re going again! Why? Because there is value in learning to eat bitter.
We are not enduring hardship for hardship’s sake. Instead we are learning that investment pays off, that there is a return on our hard work, that discomfort is a matter of choice and that we can learn to be comfortable in a wide variety of settings! We are learning that sometimes the ticket to beauty, to nature, to adventure and the unknown, is something that is hard! We are learning that it’s ok to get mad for a moment, to feel frustration, to feel like we can’t continue, and then step into the most brilliant light at the end of that tunnel! As humans encapsulate themselves in the soft cocoon of safety, wanting to control every moment and guarantee their expectation of reality THEY DIE! They lose freedom. They miss mystery! They grow old, disappointed with life, afraid of shadows, and jealous of those who live! I’m only 36 but I’ve seen it, and I see it.
So yes, my frustration is with the parents because there is something worse than not wanting to eat bitter. It is tasting it, then spitting it out never to return to the table of hardship. These kids who are taught to shy away from the uncomfortable not only play into the hands of social manipulators on a global scale, the corporate driving forces that wreak havoc on both Earth and our Spirit, they carry the habit of failure into everything they do. School. Jobs. Relationships. Goals and dreams. God given vision and destiny. Incredible potential, things that we can hardly imagine – who are we to rob them of their greatness by teaching to accept a lesser self? So here we have it, while we are causing a certain humility and discomfort and willingness to work and endure we are in fact unlocking a greater person in that child! When we buckle as a guide and leader and only give them what they want when they want it we aren’t building them and empowering them as we may think we are; we are smashing them, lowering their self-worth, teaching the idolization of greatness in those rare masters of their art instead of producing it!
Where does that leave us, we teachers in the classroom, in the woods, on the floor of the musty dojo and training hall? Tonight I’m listening to the crickets call after a long soft rain. The students enjoyed a fun movie and have full bellies of warm food. They sleep soundly in safe quarters after a day of learning and playing. But I feel good that they were prodded into the cold water, that the little blood on a scratch made it a ‘good fall’, that they did many pushups in the non-air conditioned dojo. I’m glad that the stinging nettle taught them awareness of our plant friends and that river currents are stronger than they are. Some of them will go home after this summer and complain, but many of them – MOST of them are destined to find that sometimes the sweetest taste can only be found after eating a little bitter.