Nor think a joke, Crape, a disgrace,
Or to my person, or my place;
The wisest of the sons of men
Have deign'd to use them now and then.
- Charles Churchill, The Ghost
I visited my old aikido club a couple weeks ago for their annual Kagami Biraki new year celebration. It has become a tradition of sorts that I and my guitar serve as entertainment during the dinner portion of the festivities. The preceding aikido class was led by two guest instructors followed by the club's own most senior instructor, a seventy-something man who fits nicely into the C.S. Lewis "lovable old ass" category.
Understand, before I go on, that I speak of the man who first introduced me to aikido; though I am about to disagree with him, I hold him in the highest regard.
In the final segment of the class, he showed us some tanto-dori (knife defense) techniques. Before setting us loose to practice, he made a point of saying, "I don't want to see anyone smiling or laughing--this is serious. When there's a weapon involved, you don't get second chances." He told us too that the worst thing he ever heard in the dojo was his own instructor (the man who founded the club and first brought aikido to Wisconsin) saying, "You got cut!"
I kept silent, of course, but I take issue with this kind of posturing in the dojo.
The martial arts instructor's desperate exhortation, "Don't laugh; this is a matter of life and death," is wrong on two counts. First, it probably isn't a matter of life and death, and second, even if it were there would be no shame in laughing about it.
If I've said it once, I've said it a million times: aikido is not realistic combat training. What I do in the dojo is practice antiquated and sometimes unnecessarily complicated techniques in stylized ways. In doing so, I become a fitter, happier, more centered, and perhaps a little tougher person. Now, that's nothing to sneeze at, but it's nothing to treat like brain surgery, either. No one is going to live or die because I have the proper palm-up hand position going into an udekiminage, and that proper positioning will be achieved or not independently of whether or not I am smiling at the time.
What's more, I'm not sure I buy into the idea that anything is too important to be undertaken in good humor. I suspect even the doctors performing the aforementioned brain surgery occasionally tell jokes.
I recently discovered on YouTube a wonderfully entertaining and enlightening lecture given by John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) on the subject of creativity, in which he underscores the futility of talking at length about creativity by repeatedly lapsing into sequences of "light bulb" jokes (How many _____ does it take to change a light bulb?).
One of the things Cleese finds most stifling to creativity is forced solemnity. He draws a clear distinction between seriousness and solemnity, asserts that seriousness does not demand solemnity, and then goes so far as to question the usefulness of solemnity at all (mind you, this is a man who used the words, "Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard," while giving the eulogy for his best friend).
I'm not sure I'd go quite so far as Cleese, but I'll go on the record saying that very, very few things are too serious to be laughed at. The Holocaust, maybe. Aikido, though--even aikido done with knife-shaped pieces of wood--isn't on the list.
Now, I'm not advocating goofing around when we should be training. Our time in the dojo is limited, and we ought to make the most of it. But anyone who's worked in a high-stress job with deadlines to meet knows that a little humor doesn't slow one down: in fact, sometimes it's the only thing that keeps one steady enough to meet those deadlines. Even if our tanto-dori were real preparation for a knife fight (which it probably isn't), there would be no reason to think smiles and even the occasional laugh would make us any worse at it.
As a case in point, ask any military veteran about the jokes he and his buddies used to play on each other. You'll discover that the men and women who really are training to put themselves in harm's way are often the biggest jokers of all.
We've established, then, that strict solemnity makes us neither safer nor more skillful, at least so long as we aren't frivolously wasting time. Why, then, do so many martial arts instructors expect their students to act like Trappist monks at Mass?
I think Cleese comes close to an answer for this question in the above lecture when he says, "The self-important always know at some level of their consciousness that their egotism is going to be punctured by humor."
Now, there are a few people in the martial arts who really are self-important. These are people I've complained about before (here, for example): people who need the ego-stroking that comes with being looked up to, being given ranks and awards, and being addressed with exotic-sounding titles, or people whose income depends on projecting a fiction-inspired image of themselves as warrior priests. These people need the martial arts to be serious business so that they can go on being important.
But my old sensei, cantankerous though he can be, is not so pompous or selfish as to demand solemnity for his own sake. What he fears will be "punctured by humor" in this case, I think, is not his own ego, but the importance of the legacy left to him by the cherished instructor who was also his best friend. His reasons, to be sure, are much more noble than those of the self-important show ponies I discuss above, but I still think he's wrong.
Aikido, in and of itself, just isn't that important. My family is important. My home is important. My faith (confused as it is) is important. These things are all considerably more important to my life than aikido, and even they aren't too important to laugh about.
With all that in mind, I, humble fifth-kyu that I am, say laugh on.
How many aikidoka does it take to change a light bulb? Two, unless light bulbs learn how to grab our wrists.