Expanding and Refining the Notion of Self-defense
Aikido Journal #103 (1995)
Self-defense can be defined as the protection of one’s life and/or property against an attack. In cases where people take active steps to safeguard themselves and their possessions, fear is often the strongest motivating factor. Take the example of a young man who decides to join a martial arts school or self-defense course. Most likely he is driven by apprehension due to some perceived vulnerability such as small physical size or weakness. Perhaps he has recently been the victim of an attack at the hands of a bully that has left him injured and humiliated in the eyes of his friends. As a teenager, I personally witnessed one such violent incident. Even though I was not the victim, the fear I felt at seeing the perpetration of violence at close hand proved to be the deciding factor in getting me to join an aikido dojo.
Or consider the distraught young woman who has been the victim of physical abuse at the hands of a male, who sets out to learn self-defense in an attempt to eliminate the fear of a possible future act of aggression. In such instances as these, the victims are galvanized into action by deep-seated feelings of fear. Their responses are motivated by an instinct for self-preservation perhaps tinged with a desire for revenge and their victimizers are villainized as enemies. It is a familiar psychological model involving the duality of victim and aggressor.
Over the long run, however, training in these martial disciplines can produce several unanticipated results. In addition to acquiring self-defense skills, practitioners improve their physical conditioning and mental alertness. Their newly-acquired abilities go hand in hand with a psychological change that transforms their initial motivations into something other than fear or a desire for revenge. They may take the first steps in assuming full responsibility for their lives by realizing that they have the power to prevent such situations from recurring. They discover that their discipline and effort has paid off handsomely and, in the bargain, provided benefits which spill over into other areas of their lives.
Although the notion of self-defense first brings to mind the protection of life and property, it is sometimes used metaphorically to describe courses of action against “victimization” in other areas of one’s life. Fear born out of physical threat has psychological parallels in numerous areas where we feel our security is threatened.
Take “financial” self-defense, for example. There is even a best-selling book bearing this title. Virtually everyone at some time or other find themselves in a financial pinch. I can remember the days when I was trying to operate a dojo as a business in a small town. It was a draining effort month after month to attempt to make ends meet. The psychological pressure that financial insecurity generates can have a devastating effect in all areas of one’s life. People who find themselves in financial straits may seek a way out of their dilemmas by practicing monetary discipline. They learn to analyze how they spend their income in minute detail, where they can reduce expenditures, and how to save and invest successfully. As they begin to realize their financial goals one by one, their fear of poverty or insolvency recedes and is replaced by increasing degrees of self-confidence. Their freedom from anxiety opens the door to greater happiness and the resultant psychological “leeway” may even lead them to engage in charitable activities. People who through persistence and willpower achieve financial security and consequently have little fear of “financial” attacks are the psychological equivalents of black belts in martial arts who feel confident of their ability to defend themselves against a physical attack.
This expanded concept of self-defense is obviously applicable to the area of “verbal” self-defense as well. Everyone has at some time been victimized by an aggressive interlocutor in a social context. It might be a parent, teacher, friend, or anyone who fires these “word” salvos. Whether intentionally or not, these perpetrators of verbal attacks inflict psychological wounds that cause suffering every bit as real as a physical wound. Victims who accumulate psychological damage from this kind of interpersonal abuse have various options as well. They can, for example, begin work with a skilled therapist and find out why they are vulnerable to such verbal attacks and how to cope with them in the future. Besides coming to appreciate their own worth and strengths—which is necessary to promote confidence in a social context—an understanding of semantics and verbal presuppositions can lead to the development of techniques useful for dealing with speech attacks.
As an aside, I can remember about twenty years ago how I benefited greatly from a study of formal logic which covered the subjects of the structure of language and the meaning of words. One of my favorite topics dealt with “informal fallacies.” This study explained how seemingly logical utterances were actually logically invalid. Each of these fallacies had Latin names assigned to them. What I found thoroughly fascinating was that one could find numerous examples of these kinds of plausible-sounding arguments used in every day life in advertising, politics, or when merely talking to friends. For a while until I had internalized the concepts, I would amuse myself by mentally uttering “argumentum ad populum,” “argumentum ad baculum,” “argumentum ad miseriam,” etc., to characterize these examples of fallacious argumentation wherever I encountered them. However, I got more than I bargained for when I discovered myself analyzing some of my own remarks only to find them logically “full of holes!” In any event, the social poise generated by an understanding of how people use and misuse speech can make individuals more effective verbal communicators and help them easily fend off “verbal aggression.”
Still another example of self-defense as a metaphor for transforming basic fears would be the “defense” of one’s health. Many people in their middle years and beyond experience continuous apprehension about the state of their health. We can correct this situation, and the younger generation can prevent it from happening all together, by making physical exercise and healthful eating habits a regular part of our lives. To this regime for “health defense” should be added regular checkups to monitor our body’s condition with the passage of time. Knowing that you are in excellent health and ability to regulate your body’s condition can provide great psychological assurance and prove an excellent stress-reducer.
We can all build constructive, and ever more fulfilling ways of life by learning to constantly identify our fears and insufficiencies and then taking concrete, corrective action. Individuals who make a habit of honestly monitoring all of their activities will find that mapping out and acting upon a blueprint for change becomes a skill in itself that will allow them to arrive progressively nearer to the happiness we all seek.