The Most Grueling Times Can Make You Feel the Most Alive.
We tend to think we’ll find happiness in leisure and fun. Look back, though. How often is that the case? The times when we feel most alive is when we are challenged. Whether it’s self-inflicted or something life throws at us, we’re most alive when we are tested, when we see what we are capable of.
I don’t claim to be a high-level extreme sports competitor, but I’ve tried a few things. A few difficult things. I’ve always felt the most alive when I was the most challenged. My first mountain summit, a half-marathon trail race in a thunderstorm. My black belt test.
I don’t mean a martial arts belt test. I mean a challenge that you face, fight through and emerge victoriously. Or at least strong and wiser. I won’t judge you if you haven’t even though Seneca did.
I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent — no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you. -Seneca
Or from a little more recently.
I’m not a coward, I’ve just never been tested. I’d like to think that if I was I would pass. -Dicky Barrett
(Quotes inspired by The Daily Stoic’s If You Were Tested, Would You Pass?)
Note: When referring to a person, Black Belt is capitalized. When referring to the belt or used as an adjective, black belt is not capitalized.
If you’re not interested in the testing process and want to skip to the proverbial desert, scroll down to “Feeling the Most Alive.”
Our older daughter’s friend was a Black Belt and instructor at her Taekwondo school. She convinced us to enroll our younger daughter in Taekwondo right after she started kindergarten. You have to be five years old for official training so we enrolled her in Little Dragons, the pre-training for four-year-olds.
After a few months, my wife and I enrolled in Taekwondo with her. Although I had dreamed of taking martial arts my whole life, I didn’t have high expectations. Yet. It was just something fun to do as a family.
The most important aspect at the time was how cute my daughter was. I enjoyed the physical activity, but the first few belts weren’t much of a challenge for me. We both learned a lot about respect and discipline, but I was in excellent physical condition and was equal to the task of the first few belts.
Since I relished and embraced physical activity, I mostly looked like the old dude taking it too seriously. Think Will Ferrell or Vince Vaughn. I did make friends with several people much shorter than me, though, and that ain’t easy. (Finding people shorter than me, not making friends.)
That began to change when we graduated to intermediate classes. Intermediate classes were significantly more challenging. It was when we made it to intermediate classes that we started nurturing the notion of making it to black belt when I decided that I was going to realize my life-long dream of being a black belt.
Advanced classes were another level of physical challenge. I loved advanced classes! The running, jumping, kicking and punching. I loved the agility ladder and footwork drills. I lept into mountain climbers, push-ups rolly-pollies and cartwheels like no mid-40s, grown-ass man should.
I take that back. We should.
During these four years, I constantly dreamed of when we’d get our belts in the Belt Ceremony. To paraphrase one of my favorite lines from Hamilton (again), I imagined the belt ceremony so much it felt more like a memory.
I made spreadsheets of the classes and color-belt tests we needed to time when we would finally get to test for our black belts. The black belt dominated my thoughts more than everything else.
I in no way claim that ours is the toughest taekwondo school in the world. I’ve heard of tougher schools. My brother-in-law says that he took karate as a kid in Australia, he had to punch trees to toughen up his knuckles. That sounds like a great metaphor for working in IT.
We occasionally get students from other schools where they earned black belts in a few months. Our school let those students keep their belts but made them retest during the next test. They often had to learn every Poomsae and strike like a beginner, but our school never took away anyone’s belt.
Black belt testing was spread over three months. During the first week, we had to turn in an essay of what we had learned from Taekwondo and what it meant to us. Over the next two months, we had to perform all aspects of the eventual testing for Black Belts and let them grade, critique and coach us. In addition to that, we had to give and log two hours of private lessons to beginners as well as three classes acting as assistant instructors in the beginner class.
The first day, a week before the other sections of the test, covered Poomsae. Those are the forms maneuvers that display combat techniques mastered at each belt level. For the black belt test, we had to display all ten Poomsae and do them correctly.
I’m not sure what I always did incorrectly with Poomsae, but they winded me. It was a challenging and tiring night, but we completed it.
The following Wednesday night was the agility test. We got a break here. This night is usually Thursday night. Ours was rescheduled due to storms forecasted Thursday night, a brief moment of kindness from our S_ah Boo Nim_ (the school’s master).
This was also quite a challenge. First, we did lunges and pushups while climbing the seats of an amphitheater. It amounted to about 80 of each.
Then we ran up and down a steep hill, backwards, sideways and crawling. We probably ran up and down the hills forty times during the testing. I felt like I might pass out from the exertion a couple of times, but that happened occasionally in advanced classes.
This was the first time testing at this particular park. Speaking with the Sah Boo Nim’s wife later, she said he’d likely tone down the testing here in the future. It turned out to be more difficult than the previous years’ testing at a high school stadium. It was still nothing compared to the next night of testing.
This was also the night of my daughter’s 10th birthday. They gave her and another student whose birthday was the next week a brief little birthday cake party after testing.
The third night begins at 5:30 pm Friday night with sparring classes, coaching beginners and intermediates until 6:30, then advanced sparring until 8:00. Sparring is physically exhausting. All your senses are on high alert. Watching your opponent, planning your next move, planning their next move, ready to strike, ready to block, maintaining movement the duration of the bout. Bouts last anywhere between 30 and 120 seconds, depending on how salty the S_ah Boo Nim_ or Kyo Sah Nim (an instructor) feel at that moment_._
We got a 15-minute break after sparring class. The break was to pack away sparring gear and prepare the dojang (school) for the endurance testing, not to rest.
Then began four hours of nonstop kicks and punches. Kicking drill after kicking drill alternating between the heavy bags and the speed bags, with a 10-minute break each hour.
Around 10:30 pm, I got a migraine. I often got migraines after extreme exertion. I’m not sure they are caused by lack of blood sugar or electrolytes, but they’re not unusual for me.
Another tester passed out because his blood pressure meds were suppressing his heart rate during testing. It was a night full of cramps, bruises, blood and sweat.
I kept looking to my daughter with intents to encourage her. That ended up going the other way. I needed her encouragement. She was 10. She was exhausted but didn’t complain.
Whenever I felt like giving up I imagined the Belt Ceremony. For some reason, my mind also kept repeating It’s a Small World After All_, but I suspect that just some sort of hallucination_.
Around 11:30 my legs started giving out. During kicking drills I alternated between cramps and just not being able to lift my leg to the bag.
That is the purpose of the test.
Black Belts never give up. — Master Croft
The test pushes you past the point where you want to give up. You have to show that you never give up. The test pushes you to the point where your body finally gives up.
Around this time my daughter started looking distressed. We were all running on E. I said to her, “We’ve come this far. Can’t stop now.”
Empty and be full. -Tae Te Ching
Nobody had energy left to speak much. Still, to the very end we had to kihap (the “hai-ya” scream when you strike) loudly for each punch and kick or the sah boo nim would make the drill harder_._
Finally. Around 12:30.
“On the ground. 60 seconds of pushup when I say Go!”
That meant we were finally finished. Ish.
60 seconds of pushups.
60 seconds of squats.
60 seconds of jumping jacks.
60 seconds of situps.
60 seconds of mountain climbers
And finally the end. Ish.
We lined up to bow to the flags and be dismissed.
We spent an hour cleaning the entire school. Fear not. The school is cleaned more often than the two annual black belt tests. The owners hire professionals to clean the school a few times each week.
Although it’s more of a symbolic cleaning for the test, a practice in humility, responsibility and respect. It’s also a literal, thorough and legit cleaning of the entire school. Every chair, every shelf, every mirror and every square inch of the floors.
Then we lined up to be dismissed again. For real this time.
At about 1:30 in the morning most of us adjourned to a local Whataburger for the traditional post-test meal.
How late would you sleep in the morning after a night comprised of six hours of intense, grueling physical activity and an hour of cleaning?
We had another day to go.
We returned to the school on Saturday morning at 8:00 am. We spent three hours setting up tables, chairs and equipment to prepare the school for the exhibition and ceremony. We rehearsed some of the coordinated sections of the exhibition and ceremony, posed for some photos and finally spent about 45 minutes to write thank you cards to present to loved ones as part of the ceremony before getting 30 minutes to have a quick lunch and change into our uniforms.
This is the first time we get to don our new black belt uniforms! Those of us not testing 2nd or 3rd black belt still have our red-black belts, but we get to wear our sweet, new uniforms!
The regular uniforms are a heavy, itchy, white cotton with no decorations other than the school logo on the back. The hold all the sweat. They stick to you and seem to weigh a few pounds heavier at the end of each class.
My black belt uniform is made of the silky-soft, quick-drying, sweat-wicking athletic gear material with dignified black stripes on the shoulders. Putting it on is like melting into the driver's seat of a fully-loaded, brand new luxury car.
Guests arrive, find seats and the ceremony begins at noon. After a two and half -hour presentation of calisthenics, footwork drills, kicking drills, forms and sparring — because that’s what you want to do the day after 6 hours of grueling physical activity — we finally get to the belt presentation ceremony.
This is the part I’ve played through my mind millions of times the previous few years.
What I learned is that while the view from the summit was amazing, it wasn’t the summit that made me feel alive. It was the journey.
I had scheduled a vacation day the next day. My kid woke up and said she could go to school, so I went on work and canceled my vacation day. Black Belts never give up.
I’ve felt pain. I had rib cartilage torn in a hockey game once and had kidney stones ones. I’ve never been through anything more grueling. I wouldn’t say to just inflict pain on yourself. If you feel compelled to do that, please seek therapy.
Find a way to test yourself, though. Train for a half-marathon, a black belt or anything outside your comfort zone. Push yourself to where you want to give up and then keep going. A sign on the wall at my physical therapist’s office says,
If it’s comfortable, you’re not growing.
Leisure isn’t life. Strife is life.
There is no shame in not testing yourself, just not much life either. If you really want to feel alive, then venture into the seas and trees, into the streets if strange lands. Challenge yourself and come back stronger and happier.