After two and a half months, I felt that the “Welcome” sign was out of date.
In October 2011, following a tumultuous summer, I started a fantastic medical writing job in downtown NYC. Like all new employees, I felt a volatile but potent mixture of trepidation and anticipation, but a sign on my desk helped to calm my nerves. “Welcome, Marshall Honorof.”
Now that I had been at the company long enough to know most of the job’s ins and outs, a woman I work with suggested that it was time for the welcome sign to go. “Empty desk, empty mind,” she said, and I tended to agree. There were three things I knew I wanted to put up right away: my souvenir Sherlock Holmes “Baker Street” plate, my Heroic Age Avengers poster, and my black belt certificate.
I started taekwondo my freshman year of college, and it’s fair to say that it has had a tremendously positive impact on my life. Taekwondo (literally, “the way of the hand and foot”) is a Korean martial art that focuses on quick strikes, balance, and kicking. Martial arts facilitated my transformation from fat to slender, and from socially inept to outgoing and friendly. Taekwondo taught me physical focus, mental discipline, and how to open doors with my feet. Receiving my black belt in 2008 was one of my proudest accomplishments, and since then, I’ve displayed each new black belt certificate where people could see it.
After I took down the “welcome” sign and made my desk a little more personal, I called the woman over to see. As a fan of Asian pop culture, I figured that she would get a particular kick out of seeing that I, too, had incorporated a part of the Far East into my life.
She looked over the Avengers poster and the Baker Street plate for a few seconds, then her eyes settled on the black belt certificate. “I’d take that down,” she said, pointing to it. I wasn’t sure I’d heard her right.
“Why?” I asked.
She shrugged. “It’s weird and bragging.” She stayed for a few more minutes to talk over an assignment we were working on, then returned to her desk.
“Heartbroken” is too strong a word, but I think it’s fair to say that I was crestfallen. Over the course of the day, I sought input on the matter from The Escapist newsroom team, Facebook friends, and Twitter followers. Everyone seemed to think that keeping the certificate up was reasonable; it was, after all, no different from hanging up a diploma or a photo of a particularly accomplished son or daughter.
As I thought about it, though, a question occurred to me: is there a place for a certificate in the taekwondo canon? I was willing to accept that the certificate was “weird.” The accusation of being weird is one that I’ve dealt with for over two decades, and I’ve learned that all it takes to be weird is to do something that most people don’t do. You can be weird by liking science fiction, or you can be weird by spending your evenings leaping through the air to kick 80-pound bags. In the sense that having a black belt is abnormal, yes, it is very weird.
However, the “bragging” part of her comment hit a little harder. If it’s true, and hanging up a certificate is a form of bragging, it runs counter to everything that students of taekwondo – especially advanced belts – hold dear. Taekwondo embraces five basic tenets:
- Indomitable spirit
Each one of these could be a post in and of itself, but for now, just think of these like Maslow’s pyramid. Indomitable spirit is the most important tenet of taekwondo, but it is impossible to have indomitable spirit without self-control. It is impossible to have self-control without perseverance, and so forth. Courtesy, then, is the bedrock of the entire discipline.
In the dojang (training hall), courtesy refers mostly to decorum, such as bowing to flags and addressing black belts as “sir.” In the outside world, this principle applies to every interaction with other people. Speak clearly and respectfully, even to those who antagonize you. Show respect to everyone you meet – superior, subordinate, friend, family, coworker, or stranger, everyone deserves your best foot forward. Most importantly, follow the Golden Rule and treat people as you would want to be treated.
Some schools have added a sixth tenet called either “modesty” or “humility.” The idea is basically right out of Spider-Man: with great power comes great responsibility. Taekwondo is not for showing off, or feeling superior to anyone. Never lord your accomplishments over another individual.
The more I think about it, though, the more I see this added tenet as superfluous. Courtesy, when practiced correctly, includes humility. Bragging about one’s abilities (or worse, one’s belt ranking) or using your own knowledge to make another person feel inferior is, to put it bluntly, being a dick. That is in no way concordant with the tenets of taekwondo.
On the other hand, consider “integrity,” a more advanced tenet. I am legitimately proud of what I’ve accomplished through my study of martial arts. Taekwondo has helped me become more physically fit, more outgoing, less confrontational, and, most importantly, less arrogant. In short, a certificate is not a representation of how many boards I’ve broken, how many times I’ve been knocked to the ground, or how high I can land a jump kick. It’s a reminder – sometimes a very humbling one – that I’ve come a long way from the boy I used to be.
When the woman at work suggested that I take the poster down, I replied, “It’s who I am.” All I meant, on a conscious level, was that the certificate has my name on it, so it’s easy to tell which desk is mine. Completely by accident, it turns out I may have hit the nail on the head.