For most of my adult life I have trained in martial arts. The body awareness and conditioning they provide supports my physical and emotional health on so many levels. My martial training also offers useful insights on a strategic question I ponder frequently: what must we do to navigate the changing world in which we live?
One of my formative instructors taught out of a basement studio in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was a stocky man with a prominent, gravelly drawl. He was also a Deputy Sheriff, and brought a sense of urgency to our training that I at first found intimidating but eventually learned to appreciate. He was a phenomenal teacher even if he was not a perfect human being.
Of all the memories I have from our training experiences, one phrase he used stands out: Every movement that we make must take us to a position of safety and advantage. He said this to emphasize the importance of cutting all unnecessary movement out of our techniques so we could respond to a threat quickly, effectively, and using as little energy as possible. This phrase would come up when we practiced striking drills, grappling techniques, and of course when we debriefed our sparring matches. He also referenced it when talking about situational awareness, and how the best defense is to avoid dangerous scenarios altogether.
The final two words of this phrase grated at me. Every movement that we make, he would say, must take us to a position of safety and advantage. I fully acknowledge that there are times when having an advantage over others is useful, even necessary. If someone attempts to assault me, I will seek an advantage over them and will feel no ethical or moral resistance to doing so. For myself though, and I hope for most of my readers, experiences like this are rare. I have been in one situation in my adult life that nearly resulted in physical conflict, and was able to diffuse it such that neither I, nor my would be assailants, suffered any physical harm.
Even as I acknowledge that, I have noticed in myself a tendency to work towards subtler forms of advantage in my interpersonal relationships. Sometimes I have done this intentionally, while other times it was unintentional but nonetheless impactful. In all of these instances I now realize that my pursuit of relational advantage undermined my ability to connect to people as equals and to build trusting relationships. This leads me to wonder: By habitually seeking a position of advantage are we inadvertently undermining our ability to create for ourselves the safer container of an egalitarian community?
It occurs to me that there are two broad relational strategies we might pursue. Power hierarchies are one of them. In these, we either assert power over others to achieve a sense of safety or control, or we allow others to assert power over us to achieve those same ends. In interpersonal relationships, these dynamics are often labeled as codependency. More broadly in society they manifest as management structures in businesses and governments, or as ranks in the military. An alternative power arrangement is one of partnership, where hierarchies are either nonexistent or they are fluid enough that no one person enjoys disproportionate power over others.
Human begins are social animals. We need the presence of other people to thrive emotionally, especially other people we trust. The types of power relations we have with others have an enormous influence on how safe we feel. Research has demonstrated that power hierarchies can be quite stressful for people, and not just for those at the bottom. The stress caused by these hierarchies, and by the pursuit of advantage in interpersonal relationships more generally, do not always provide the sense of safety we strive for.
These two classes of power relations need not apply just to our relationships with other people, either. We can observe our relations with non-human animals, plants, fungi, and the natural world more broadly through this lens too. Agriculture, as a practice, entails a foundationally power-over dynamic. We exert power over the soil with the plow, over weeds and pests with chemicals, over competitors with fences and netting, and ultimately rebuild landscapes to suit our needs and our needs alone. This contrasts sharply with the partnership strategies that many foraging peoples use to engage with the landscapes they live in.
While I honor my instructor’s teachings, when I use his phrase today I feel inspired to adjust it a bit. Every movement we make, I say, should take us to a position of safety. I acknowledge that, in certain circumstances, being safe does require that we have an advantage over others. That, however, is not always true. Sometimes true safety requires that we practice skills of relating to other people — and to non-human people — that disperse power rather than concentrate it. Sometimes partnership trumps the pursuit of advantage.
This meander through martial philosophy leads me to a few more questions worth posing: What relational skills must we develop to protect ourselves from stifling power hierarchies? How can we discern when pursuing an advantage over others is useful or even necessary, versus when that pursuit undermines our goals? And finally, how safe should we even strive to be in a world replete with conflict and change?
I hope these questions serve you as well as they do me.
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