Thursday, January 17, 2013

Making Mistakes


 There’s an old saying, “A man who makes a mistake, and fails to admit it, has made two mistakes.”  
Part and parcel of integrity is the ability to critically evaluate your own beliefs – and to change those beliefs in accordance with the evidence. That’s easier said than done. What most people actually do is to cherry-pick the evidence to support their previously held beliefs.
There’s huge “social risk” in admitting a mistake: embarrassment, shame, fear of ridicule. But it’s extremely important to be able to do it. Admitting a mistake is an act of courage, and every act of builds more courage.
It’s also important to understand what a “mistake” is.
A mistake is an unintentional error. A blunder that arises from a erroneous belief.
Let’s say you’re adding up a column of numbers and you forget to carry the 1. Despite your best efforts and intentions, the total is inaccurate. That’s a mistake.
Let’s say you’re typing the word “cat” and it comes out “vsy.” Despite your best efforts and intentions, the word spelling is incorrect.
Let’s say you trust someone who turns out to be a consummate liar. Despite your best efforts and intentions in believing them, you find out everything they ever said was false.
It’s very possible  -- despite your best efforts and intentions -- to reach an erroneous conclusion when the evidence you have is incorrect or incomplete. Part of your job is to know how to be sure your evidence is correct and complete by asking the right questions --and questioning the answers.
Let me be clear. There’s a big difference between “making a mistake” and doing wrong. 

 It's not possible to make the same mistake twice. The first time is a mistake. The second time is a choice.

A fellow says, “Yes I’ve made some mistakes in the past.” And then you find out that his “mistakes” were three armed robberies, four forcible rapes and one murder. You know what? Those aren’t “mistakes,” Brother. Those are acts that you knew or should have known were inherently wrong because they did injury to innocent people. The only “mistake” is that you’re not still in prison. Every villain in the world cries “mistake” when he finally gets caught and has to pay the piper. I recall a case in which an individual ran over their spouse with the family car – then backed over the victim and ran over them again – and had the gall to refer to it as an “accident.”
In the law there’s the concept of malum in se – something that is evil in and of itself. Murder, rape, robbery, assault and kidnapping lead the hit parade of mala in se. These things are wrong, they’re always wrong, they’re wrong no matter who does them, not matter who they do it to, or what their reason is --- and everybody knows or should know that. You don’t “accidentally” kidnap someone, or “unintentionally” rob someone, or “innocently” rape someone.
Mistake-making and wrong-doing are two completely different things.

When it comes to mistakes, there’s a six-step process for handling it.
Step One: Admit there’s a mistake. “That’s wrong.”
Step Two: Own the mistake. “Yes, I did that.” No excuses.“
 Step Three: Understand the mistake. “How exactly did I go wrong?”
Step Four: Explore the mistake’s damages. “What are the consequences of my error?”
Step Five: Make amends. “What do I have to do to fix this? To whom do I owe an apology – or more.”   Whatever it takes to set things right, do it. And do it right away.
Step Six: Learn from the mistake. “How will I avoid making this kind of mistake in the future?”

Some people would suggest a seventh step: moving beyond the mistake  or letting go of it -- having done all the above six steps.   
I disagree.
 “Every man is a product of his own works,’ wrote Cervantes, in Don Quixote.  Those works include victories and defeats, triumphs and errors.   And some mistakes are worse than others, do more harm than others. 
Most people let themselves off the hook quite easily. A fighter doesn’t. A fighter takes responsibility for what he or she does – and carries the responsibility for what he or she has done.
I think you keep your mistakes on a chain around your neck so they jingle like spurs when you walk, and remind you to be careful.


(On this topic, I strongly recommend the brilliant 1986 film, The Mission, starring Robert de Niro.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Posture Is Not Just Posturing

Consider the open stance of the classical fencer:

  • Tall, upright, back straight. 
  • Feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent.
  •  Chin up, gaze forward. 
  • Weapon arm well-extended. 
  • Rear arm aloft. 

What does this posture communicate?

When I was keeping company with actors, we used to discuss two different ways of working: from inside to outside, and from outside to inside. Working from inside to outside, means conjuring up an emotion and then letting that emotion manifest itself in your body, posture, expression, movement and speech. Working from outside to inside means to use the body to conjure up the emotion: clenching fist to summon anger, for example, or assuming a particular facial expression. That latter approach could be called was "Fake it, until you feel it."

Aristotle said, "Act as if you already had the quality you desire, and you shall have it." 

Psyhco-cybernetics says that thoughts you put into your subconscious mind determine your self-concept, which determines your behavior.

Sport psychology says, visualize your performance and pose your affirmations in the present tense.

Do you begin to see a pattern here?


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Will the Real Hero Please Stand Up?

I heartily recommend this film. Dustin Hoffman, Andy Garcia, and Geena Davis are all in top form, and it raises some entertaining questions about what heroism is.


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

To Live by the Sword: Integrity

According to Webster, the word “integrity” comes from the Latin integritat-, integritas, from integr-, integer, meaning “entire.”
Integrity is a state of being complete or undivided, of soundness, of incorruptibility. We talk of the structural integrity of a building, the water-tight integrity of a ship, and the moral integrity of a human being.
For the human, integrity means a strictly consistent adherence to a moral code. No exceptions. No wiggle room.
I think it may be possible to boil integrity down to three things:
1.     Tell the truth
2.     Keep your word
3.     Take responsibility for your actions
If you think about it, whenever things really go to hell, it’s because one or more people have violated one or more of these three principles.
Integrity may not be easy.
But it really is very simple
There’s a story I like to share with my students , as an example, and I’ll share it with you now. It’s reputed to be a true story, but I don’t know for certain that it is. If it isn’t, it ought to be.  It goes like this:
Shortly after the end of WWII, there is an emergency room physician – a Jewish survivor of Dachau – on duty when two patients are brought in, victims of a horrific traffic accident. The man isn’t too badly hurt, but the young son is, and is unlikely to survive. The doctor notices, on the father’s arm, a tattoo indicating his SS blood group. Calming the father as best he can the doctor moves on to treat the boy. After heroic effort, the doctor manages to defy the odds and amaze everyone by pulling the boy through.  He then reports the good news to the father who is effusive with tears of gratitude.  “By the way,” says the doctor, “I noticed your tattoo. I have one, too.”  He rolls up his sleeve and shows the former SS man his prisoner number.   The father is quite stunned.  “To be honest,” he tells the doctor, “if positions were reversed, I don’t know that I could or would do what you just did.”   “Well, you see,” replies the doctor, “that’s the difference between you and me.”

Once upon a time, all fencing was "classical" fencing.
Everyone knew what the rules meant, everyone knew what proper fencing was, and what correct officiating was. This agreement included the fencers’ code of conduct, on and off the strip.
How did fencing become the abominable, unrecognizable mess that it is now?
No mystery there. Refer to the above three item list.
First, people began to make exceptions. Exceptions for team-mates. Exceptions for people they “liked” – or for people by whom they wanted to be “liked.” Exceptions for “champions” or up-and-comer’s. They began to tolerate ungentlemanly shows of narcissism.  They began to lower standards of technique accepting something incorrect as “good enough.” And some people hit that slippery slope with their skis and raced to the bottom, as exemplified by the “flick.”  
Both the foil and the epee are thrusting-only weapons. A thrust is a forward linear action with the point.   The "flick" is not a forward linear action with the point. A "flick" is a whipping of the blade in such a manner that the flexibility of the blade coupled with the point-heavy electric barrel causes the point to curve around the opponent’s defense and slap the button against the target.
Therefore, the “flick” is not a thrust.
And therefore, “flick” is, in fact, cheating.   The fact that it can “make the light go off” is a defect of the scoring apparatus, not a virtue of the technique.
But for reasons such as those mentioned above, the “flick” began to be tolerated. Then accepted.  Because if enough people cheat, it doesn’t seem like cheating anymore.
But it is.
If there really is a principle involved, things are either black or white. There are no grey areas. You can’t be "a little bit" dead or "sort of" pregnant.  A ship is not seaworthy merely because the total area of its hull exceeds the total area of its holes. You can’t breathe for only 22 hours a day and not breathe for the other 2 hours. You have to breathe all the time because your physical survival depends on that consistent behavior. Likewise, you can’t have integrity only part of the time, because your spiritual survival depends on morally consistent behavior, too.
Like the other important lessons of the sword, this is one you can take home from the salle.
Compare and contrast, if you will, two Presidential administrations:
During the GW Bush Presidency large numbers of people (most of whom self-describe as liberal democrats) rightly condemned “Dubya” for unconscionable violations of the US Constitution, and International law. They wailed and bemoaned such things as the “Patriot” Act, and aggressive, “pre-emptive” war based on palpable lies, and the use of torture.
In 2008 Barack Obama was elected to the Presidency largely because he promised to be the antidote to 8 years of George Bush and to restore the rule of law – a promise that evaporated as soon as the new President lowered his hand after taking the oath of office.
In the ensuing 4 years, President Obama maintained and even expanded the most egregious Bush policies, and introduced a few of his own. He claims, for example, to have the lawful authority to order the murder of any person anywhere in the world (including Americans here at home) for secret reasons of his own, unreviewable by any court of law.  He also claims the power to order the military to “arrest” any person in the United States (including American citizens) whom he suspects of “terrorism” and hold them in “indefinite detention” without having been charged, let alone convicted, of any crime, and with no recourse to due process, no legal representation, no habeus corpus.
And yet, the very “liberal democrats” who were champions of the Constitution when Republican George Bush was in office, are eerily silent now that the Bill of Rights is being shredded by one of their own team-mates. Someone they “like.” Or want to be “liked” by…
While I find many of the principles that Republicans espouse to be utterly detestable, I must at least acknowledge that they are consistent. What the Republicans lauded George Bush for doing, they also – even if grudgingly – laud Barack Obama for doing.
The Democrats, however, seem to change principles as easily as I change shirts, which suggests to me that they really have none at all.

Please don’t take this example to mean that I am endorsing the Republican Party. I’d as soon become an Olympic fencing coach. 
The subject is integrity. 
I regret that American politics affords us such excellent negative examples.


Monday, January 7, 2013

It Ain't Just a Sandwich

The word “hero” is one of the most over-used and abused words in the English language. Used to describe practically anything, it has come to mean almost nothing –  whatever the user wants it to mean.
Like the word “love.” 
Or “national security.”  
Or “terrorist.”
But for us, “hero,” or “heroism,” has a very particular meaning, arising as it does from the ethos of modern chivalry.

A heroic act is an action on behalf of an “other,” or to defend a moral cause or principle. It is an active attempt to right a wrong, correct an injustice, to protect an innocent from harm, or to otherwise make a positive change in the world, despite social or physical incentive to do otherwise.

There are four criteria for an action to qualify as heroic:
1.     It must be a VOLUNTARY act.
2.     It must benefit one or more people in need, or a community as a whole.
3.     It must involve RISK. There must be some potential cost, whether physical comfort or safety, economic status, or social stature.
4.     It must be done without any expectance of any gain, nor acceptance of reward thereafter. This includes material gain, but also power and/or position.

Why do some people act heroically while others do not?
Good question.
There are many obstacles to acting heroically, including conformity and group dynamics, social roles and expectations, obedience to authority, the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility.
But I think that you can build up your hero muscles the same way you build up your other muscles: by regular, systematic, progressive over-load. In the same way you can make physical fitness a “habit,” and a permanent part of a healthy lifestyle, you can also make “heroic action” a habit.

At the core of heroism is the ability to act decisively and independently, based on one’s own understanding of the circumstances and one’s own moral compass, without deference to either authority or society.
This very behavior is integral to the proper practice of the sword, and I believe can contribute substantially to making heroism the norm, rather than the exception – which is exactly what we must accomplish if we’re to have even the foggiest hope of tackling the staggering problems that currently confront us.
The sword is merely a key for unlocking the hero in your heart.


Saturday, January 5, 2013

If I Only Had a Brain...

Unanswered Questions and Unquestioned Answers

Chains, my baby's got me locked up in chains.
And they ain't the kind that you can see.
Whoa, oh, these chains of love got a hold on me, yeah.
Chains, Gerry Goffin/Carol King

In my salle d'armes, everyone knows that “because the master said so” is not an acceptable reason for doing anything.  I want each and every one of my students to understand exactly why we do things the way we do them. Once you know the truth, no one can ever take that away from you. I want my students to own the truth, not just borrow it from me.
With the sword, it’s relatively easy to separate the truth from the guff by giving it a practical test.  I do this regularly, for example, with folks who believe in parrying a cut with the flat of the blade, rather than with the edge. You could say that the flaw in this theory strikes them immediately. 
In other arenas --- politics, for example ---ferreting  out a needle of truth from a haystack of lies can seem a daunting task, even impossible.
It isn’t.
But it takes a little work.
Sometimes it takes a LOT of work.
Often, you won’t like what you find.

When you are presented with “information,” you can separate the truth from the lies by asking the right questions:
1.     What is the issue, what is the presenter’s conclusion, and what are the reasons? Who benefits?
2.     What elements, words or phrases are ambiguous or undefined?
3.     What are the value conflicts and assumptions?
4.     What are the descriptive assumptions?
5.     Are there any fallacies in the presenter’s reasoning and what are they?
6.     How good is the presenter’s evidence?
7.     Are there alternative possibilities or rival causes?
8.     Is the presenter using deceptive statistics?
9.     Is any information being omitted?
10. What reasonable conclusions are possible?

If you’re not familiar with this little list, if it doesn’t make immediate and complete sense to you, then you can get a crash course in critical thinking from Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking, by M. Neil Browne and Stuart M. Kelley (Prentics Hall 1998), from which I purloined most of the list.
Prudence demands that you accept nothing at face value, but rather subject it to rigorous critical evaluation.
Integrity demands that you subject your own beliefs to the same rigorous critical examination, and you must be ready, willing and able to abandon even the most dearly-held belief unless it is supported by the evidence. 
Or you can parry with the flat of the blade just because someone told you to do it that way,  and see how that strikes you.


Wednesday, January 2, 2013


“When an English lion creeps up on a nest of French foxes he does well to wear a bushy tail.”
-Errol Flynn, as Peter Blood
Captain Blood (1935)