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Martial Mania

The Vocabulary of Self-Defense

By George Donahue

Over the years, Terry Bryan has written persuasively and wisely in several venues, including here on, about the self-defense value of establishing a healthy, normal behavior pattern, of making right choices, of making a solid livelihood and environment, of building the right attitude. I think he covers that very well, and I don’t intend to repeat what he’s said, particularly since I’ve done a poor job at living up to that sort of life. My topic here is something vaguer: worldwide self-defense. As always, I start from the particular circumstances of my own life.

My son and I (and my country, too, for that matter) share a liability, and I’m sorry to say that my son got it from his parents, as his parents got it from theirs. Just as it’s not a good trait for a country to instill in its citizens, it’s not a good trait for a father, or mother, to pass along to a beloved child. When we get angry about a situation, we tend to escalate the situation by mouthing off and refusing to back down. I don’t do it often anymore, because over the years I’ve developed at least a little ability to keep it in check and to avoid trouble in the first place. (I did it last night, though, and that’s what inspired me to write this article.) My son, however, is just entering his adolescent raging-hormone stage, and it’s much harder for him to moderate his reactions. This is a great shame because it gets him into trouble, frequently. It’s a shame also because he is actually a compassionate, generous, and sweet-natured kid, who’s developing a reputation among teachers and his fellow students as a mean-tempered, explosive hard head. Exactly the reputation I had in some circles in my youth, even though I believe I was sweet natured, too, even if it was deeply buried inside. Being a hard head didn’t do me any good and it’s not doing him any good either. It sometimes did me a lot of harm and it often harms him, too. We spend a lot of time apologizing, a lot of time repairing what didn’t need breaking in the first place.

That’s not good self-defense. It makes enemies. It exposes us to more trouble than we need. It brings battles to us, rather than letting us choose our battles or avoid battles altogether. It can be extremely dangerous, to say the least. Some, maybe most, of my closest scrapes when I was a young man were at least partly my own fault. I have a scar on my hand that was entirely my fault. It’s become much fainter over the years, but because of its convenient location, it still reminds me many times each day that I should never taunt or torment anyone into doing more than they would have done otherwise. You and I should never expect that we can remain in control once we’ve unleashed our emotions—or confronted someone and unleashed or magnified theirs.

Just twenty-five or so years ago, it began to seem as though our world was on the verge of something breathtakingly novel. It seemed as though for the first time in history, maybe for the first time ever, more of the world would be peaceful than belligerent. It seemed as though the world’s superpowers were at last gaining a measure of sanity, cooperating to end the Cold War. It was just about that time that I got more peaceable, too. That cusp came and went for the world, although it has remained in place for me—most of the time. The vision of a peaceful world was either an illusion or, more likely, a prospect too uncomfortable and unprofitable for too many. It was sabotaged from all sides. Now we live in what may be the most dangerous time ever, everywhere. Nowhere on the planet is really safe.

With some exceptions, fighting, aggression, and counter-aggression don’t work to bring about personal peace or lasting world peace. Many countries have tried to bring peace to the world by waging war, much as I did in my youth—and my son does now—with our personal battles. It’s not logical and it has never worked. Even World War II, which many consider to be the most successful righteous war ever, sowed the seeds of conflict for the ensuing years. Governments tend to act like adolescent boys; once things get tight, the raging hormones kick in. It’s hard for a nation that’s picked a fight to back down. Countries hold grudges longer than even the orneriest individuals. Even countries with many wise and compassionate citizens are not immune, but it’s those wise and compassionate citizens in every country, few or many doing their individual best, who eventually get countries to change course when their countries are in the wrong or acting out of adolescent stupidity. It’s those citizens who jump start countries that are just dead in the water as far as doing anything to make things better, too.

Those of us who are interested in self-defense are by nature also interested in the defense of those around us. We tend to stick up for them; our impulse is to intervene, to help. Sometimes that gets us killed, but I believe that most martial artists would rather live and die nobly than live a cringing, selfish life and die a fearful death. That’s one of the reasons, aside from their capacity to drink beer, I like hanging out with martial artists—there is a lot of nobility in their hearts, a lot of wisdom in their heads, however humble they are. On average, too, the martial artists I’ve met have tended to be more generous than usual.

In harnessing that nobility and generosity of spirit, one of the best interventions we have within our power is to make living conditions better, or at least more hopeful, for those who are doing without. Both because it’s the moral thing to do, according to reason and all the established religions of the world, and because it’s expedient. People without hope are desperate people. They will do what they have to do to survive, to take care of themselves and their families. That might not be bad, but they’re easily manipulated by others. By giving hope, you reduce the anger, ease the tension, build peace for the long term. That’s excellent self-defense. That’s also excellent defense for your family and friends and community. What better defense than making excuses for war and aggression harder to find? Than making friends of those who might under lesser circumstances become enemies? Improving the lives of others directly improves our own and it makes our children, family, and friends safer.

Of course, individuals can only make small differences alone, but sometimes those differences snowball, as other individuals pick up on their efforts and join in. As an example, a few months ago, when I was looking for educational websites for my children, I came upon an interesting vocabulary-building website, Free Rice ( This was founded by a clever man who wanted to increase literacy at the same time he increased charitable giving to the world’s poor. According to Mark Bittman, in a January 27, 2008, New York Times article, “…800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds cattle, pigs and chickens” On Free Rice, you earn rice for donation around the world by defining words correctly. You improve yourself while improving the world—win, win. The rice is paid for by the advertisers in the website banners. It goes to feed the hungry rather than to fuel factory agribusiness. It has a direct impact and it makes the world a better, safer place for us, and for everyone else. It’s just a small example of what one individual can do, especially once he or she’s enticed others to join in.

There are other ways to help, other things to do to increase the well-being, safety, and happiness of the world. I’ll get to a few more in the coming months.

Copyright © 2008 by George Donahue &


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About The Author:

George Donahue has been on the board of since its inception. He is a freelance writer and editor, providing literary and consulting services to writers, literary agents, and publishers, as well to advertising agencies. He has worked in publishing for more than three decades, beginning as a journal and legal editor. Among his positions have been editorial stints at Random House; Tuttle Publishing, where he was the executive editor, martial arts editor, and Asian Studies editor; and Lyons Press, where he was the senior acquisitions editor and where he established a martial arts publishing program. He is a 6th dan student of karate and kobujutsu—as well as Yamane Ryu Bojutsu—of Shinzato Katsuhiko in Okinawa Karatedo Shorin Ryu Kishaba Juku. He was also a student of Kishaba Chokei and Nakamura Seigi until their deaths. He teaches Kishaba Juku in New York and Connecticut, as well as traveling to provide seminars and special training in karate, weapons, and self-defense. His early training was in judo and jujutsu, primarily with Ando Shunnosuke in Tokyo. He also studied kyujutsu (archery), sojutsu (spear), and kenjutsu (swordsmanship) in Japan as a youth. Following his move to the US, he continued to practice judo and jujutsu, as well as marksmanship with bow and gun, and began the study of Matsubayashi Ryu karate in his late teens. Subsequently, he has studied aikido and taiji and cross trained in ying jow pai kung fu.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

karate practitioners, martial artists, self-defense, martial art giving, karate giving

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