Saturday, August 7, 2010

Living with Relative Truth

Renzo Gracie.  Legacy.  Satchel Films, 2008.

This essay is a bit off-beat, with a documentary film heading it up instead of a book, but it contains a lot of good stuff that has been rattling my mental cage of late.

My faith crisis left me with a large intellectual and "spiritual" void.  For many years, I lived with a definite purpose as the player in a fixed divine plan: this plan provided a stable reference point from which to evaluate every decision I made and give it meaning.  When I realized that this plan was founded on empty speculation, free floating mythology as likely to be false as true, I felt rather like the pre-modern explorers who ventured to the edge of the world with inaccurate maps.  Like them, I quickly found myself in uncharted territory, with nothing solid to rely on in grappling with reality but my own intuition and reasoning ability.  How was I to shape my daily behavior, my "morality" (from the Latin mores, i.e. "habits, character"), without the fixed reference point of the Mormon gospel?  My first reaction was to look to other religious traditions, chiefly alternative brands of Christianity and the completely unrelated Tibetan Buddhism.  I have already written about some of the insights these new paradigms provided me.  But like Mormonism, my new would-be worldviews proved frustrating in some ways: Christianity in general seemed to suffer from a lot of the same biases and weaknesses that led me out of Mormonism, and Buddhism, while initially less off-putting to someone who has overdosed on Christianity, has its own set of weaknesses, its own special blindness to reality.  (I am not ready to take vows committing me irrevocably to a single community; nor do I find the call to become a vegetarian--or admire excessively those who do--particularly compelling).

When absolute truth becomes impossible, what is one to do with what is left?  How do we judge among the relative truths that remain?  I have a historical analogy that helps me make sense of my efforts to reconstruct a world of meaning from the shattered pieces of my Mormon faith.  Before the arrival of the Gracie family and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in the early 1990's, the student of martial arts in the United States had a variety of distinct, largely insular options available to him: he could practice taekwondo, karate, judo, boxing, or wrestling; combining karate/taekwondo and boxing to make kickboxing was about as integrative as elite clubs got.  Many masters preached the superlative value of their respective arts, each touting his own as the most pure, most complete answer to the problem posed by human self-defense and physical development.  "Dialogues" between the arts were inconclusive, since they never met on neutral ground: challenge matches took place in private or in arenas that favored one art over the other (by disallowing certain techniques).  The Gracies and the UFC changed all of this by creating a well-known public venue where martial artists of any style could compete openly against one another with no holds barred (originally, the only techniques disallowed were biting and eye-gouging).  Overnight, the invincibility of "pure" fighting arts proved a myth, as fighter after fighter went down before the Gracies' jiu-jitsu, a unique form of submission wrestling developed by the family from the Japanese jiu-jitsu of Mitsuyo Maeda.

The Gracies proved that many arts had neglected to develop the kind of ground-fighting skill required to do well in a weaponless no-holds-barred match.  For a while, they beat anyone and everyone they encountered, making Gracie jiu-jitsu look an awful lot like the "one true martial art" that so many then claimed to be.  Then, something funny happened.  People started integrating jiu-jitsu (and other well-rounded ground-fighting systems) into their martial arts, practicing it alongside their native discipline and inoculating themselves against its tricks.  The result?  The Gracies were mortal again: a good fighter with ground defense could defeat them.  Today, the modern UFC features contests between individual athletes who train multiple arts to come up with their own, individual styles.  There is no "one true martial art," no absolute truth in the ring, and yet the martial arts have not died or ceased to be relevant.  Instead, each really well-developed art offers something that the fighter will find useful.  Striking arts (boxing, Thai boxing, karate, taekwondo) complement grappling arts (jiu-jitsu, wrestling, judo).  My own martial arts instructor recognized this fact early on, before it became really obvious to everyone, and was among the first non-grappling Americans to train with the Gracies and have his senior students learn from them.

Bottom line: complex activity (like fighting no-holds-barred or living a rewarding life) requires a large and evolving toolkit.  I needed some kind of arena to test my ideas (which like everything, were infantile and unformed to start with) against one another and prove which were the most effective at turning me into the kind of moral being that I want to be.  Like everyone, I have an instinct for moral behavior: some things just seem right to me.  But this instinct does not cover everything, nor does it always tell me precisely what I must do in every situation.  So far, the strongest evaluative pressure I have been able to bring to bear on moral problems, apart from my instinct, is rational understanding.  If an idea makes sense, and I apply it to acquire something useful (as well as instinctively pleasing), then it works (for me) and is accepted into the ethical and ideological toolkit I am building (my own personal "religion" --  the martial art of "living well").  The entries that follow this one will detail which ideas have faired best so far in the ring of my rational thought (with my instinct as matchmaker, and my reason as referee/judge).  It is certain now that my legacy, like the Gracies', will be something other than the ultimate superiority of my way over all others (that illusion died forever for me with the collapse of Mormonism and the soul-searching that followed); but maybe, like the Gracies, I can inspire others and give them (and myself) some useful ideas to work with in creating a wonderful life.  In the end, my legacy, like that of the Gracies, is an individual one -- an expression of my character, not an articulation of the one true model for any and every character.  Some very good people will not look much like me.  That does not make my character (or the tools I use to shaped it) less valuable.  Take them (or leave them) as they are useful (or not) to you, personally, as an individual building your own, unique brand of moral excellence.  (P. S. If you like martial arts at all, you will like Renzo's film about the unique way of life developed by his family; I highly recommend it.)


  1. I can't wait to read the next installment! My initial reaction reading this is to wonder what particular "fighting" techniques (moral techniques, perhaps?) Mormonism provided you with to handle the ring of life (I'm not sure how well my metaphorizing is holding up here). As far as you can speculate -- given the ole' nature vs. nurture debate -- what about Mormonism, or being raised Mormon, has been (and continues to be) valuable to you? I suppose you'll handle this in an upcoming post, though, so I'll be patient for your answer.

  2. As a martial arts practitioner myself this post really sinks in with me. I remember analyzing all the differences between styles and trying to decide where I wanted to invest my time because none of them seemed to be interested in integrating the good stuff from all of them. I ended up embracing Krav Maga.

    The comparison of religions to Martial Art styles is a very good one. I feel the same way. Coming to the conclusion that I couldn't know whether LDS truth claims actually happened, or that it was even that important to the quality of my day-to-day lead me to honestly look for the good in other traditions and I found so much of it.

    I came away from this honest investigation with a feeling that there are many valid paths to achieving a fulfilling life. Even if we are sold on our truth I think it would be a wonderful thing if more people were brave enough to recognize that there can be more than one right way. Mormons handle some issues very well that other religions struggle with but they could learn so much more about how to be at peace from the Buddhists.

    Good luck on your journey.I hope you keep sharing your insights..