A Problem Well Understood is a Problem Half Solved
September 5, 2013
Blair Mercer is a high school teacher from West Vancouver, Canada, who has seen far too many children commit suicide as a result of bullying. After seeing Austin's Transformation Video he was inspired to write this special article.
My most powerful childhood memories are the times when my father asked
me to help out.
When I was given an important job.
When I was told to come along.
Often my dad would yell to me to go get the big red tool-box; as heavy as a fat cat. I would lug it behind him as we made our way to a neighbors back-alley where there was something to be fixed. A number of men would pool over a problem and the young sons would look on quietly - all copping a squat on the fat cat heavy tool-box they had lugged from home.
A furnace, a hot water tank, a gasping engine, all getting a light dusting of cigarette ash while the dad's smoked, chatted, and pondered.
The garages they worked in were not like today's canyons of electric garage door openers and gleaming hardened steel doors. Then it was just four posts and a roof, well worn shingles dripping old moss and a curtain of cherry tree or apple tree branches on two of four sides: open, inviting, made for pondering, not inspired by the fear of being robbed or the neighbors three doors down.
Tools were asked for in a flurry of activity.
Young boys scrambled.
Time stood still.
Something got repaired.
On the walk home my dad was at peace.
It was a Saturday or Sunday and the work week stress had been shed.
Often he would look down at his struggling son and offer to help - then chuckle and say "Nah, you're doing fine." A vote of confidence not a cruel gesture, and by degrees I was let into his world. Tool names were learned, at dinner I was a paid some small compliment and many years later I was handed a buzzing skill-saw to cut my own length of wood, to solve my own problem closer to home.
Watching my father's commitment to small tasks has left a monument to him in my mind. He died in 1992 but his gravestone is forever with me furnished by these moments. He loved to fish and tied flies by the hour; intricate and beautiful he would create the colors of some rare fly on some distant lake to be used at some as yet unknown time. For a young son observing this, formed that first recognition that luck appears when preparation meets opportunity.
This is the legacy of fathers; a decades-long mentorship where they take you to the places they love, and share the skills, that the love of that thing has wrought.
There will always be tension, as what my father knew may not be where my adult interest lie, but by example I learn to commit to what interests me.
This brings me to Rener Gracie, the Gracie Academy and the clip about Austin.
"A problem well understood is a problem half solved."
I had too few years with my British paratrooper dad, introduced at 6 and gone by 14, that absence left me "not knowing myself." But I had had enough time with him for a moral gyroscope to be under construction. One of the Gracie brothers says that
"Everyone is missing something until they find jiu-jitsu." Nature abhors a vacuum and that crossroads is the most fragile of time for a developing child.
Who will step forward?
Who will commit their time and skills to a vulnerable, impressionable often self-obsessed youth?
I was offered salvation by men like Rener Gracie and his brothers.
I was a 15 year old without a dad who needed structure and the hard company of skilled men. This is a story as old as time and is embedded in "the heroes journey." The young boy must pass through an ordeal, shepherded by elders to earn a place amongst his community. How can you stand and protect others, when you haven't been shown what it is that is worthy of protection.
Men of character need to be present, they make all the difference.
The giants of math and physics have been searching for a unified theory of the universe since Newton returned from sequestering himself to avoid the plague. We seek a way of explaining the cosmos in an equation. We all know E=MC2. We all know Occam's Razor: "The simplest explanation for some phenomenon is more likely to be accurate than more complicated explanations."
What Newton began for math, the Gracie's demonstrate for childhood development.
It does take a village to raise a child.
It takes the things that are inherent to villages: commitment, obligation, visibility, skills, rigor, and love.
On many levels what the Gracie Academy offered Austin and his family is genius - the sort of genius that can get lost and needs to be made visible again and again for each and every generation. Freedom is not free. It requires the perennial vigilance of all of us. Genius has a way of showing us a simple and direct solution.
Rener offered to an assaulted son and uncertain family the genius of simplicity fused with ancient wisdom; the wisdom of community stepping up to help those in need.
Modernity loves its lists: The 7 Secrets of Happy Children: eat on time, consistent sleep, unstructured play, emotional expression, making choices, feeling heard, and unconditional love.( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/katie-hurley/secrets-of-highly-happy-children_b_3722259.html)
We buy back lost common sense like the need for vitamins after bingeing on processed food.
Looking closer at what the Gracie Academy did, we can see they hit all these points.
ONE: Eat on time: Austin was asked about whether he eats fruits and vegetables. Without judgment they made him an "acai smoothie" and offered him nutrient rich food. "Nutrient rich" as a metaphor as all their actions were rich in the things that nourish a teen.
TWO: Consistent sleep: Watch a two year old in a new environment and you will see writ large the anxiety of not knowing whether they are safe or not. Wide eyed anxiety comes to us from our DNA and the oldest question we obsess about: "am I safe?" Rener's first action is to give Austin a Gee, an offering, a symbol of belonging, an act of inclusion. It implies what needs to be said - "you are safe here." Sleep comes when the static of anxiety is relieved.
THREE: Unstructured Play: Work, reward. The Gracies take Austin and his family Go-carting. Something Austin loves. It is a release from the work that needs to be done.
It is a promise kept.
For all our fathers are, they are pulled in many directions. Many promises are made and in a perfect world all would be kept. If your dad threw a ball with you; set up soccer cones and ran drills with you; you love that memory and hunger for it all your days.
FOUR: Emotional Expression: The Gracies offered Austin and his family vocabulary to express the collateral damage from Austin's assault. Our whole lives are about searching for vocabulary, especially for boys. We are made mute by trauma. Reality is a fine balance between external and internal stimuli. When the external pummels our capacity to make sense of our world we retreat to the safety of an internal landscape. For too many of us, that has manifested as an epidemic of isolation, loneliness and suicide. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people. It may be wise to apply what the Gracie's gave a bullied boy to our returning veterans; twenty-two commit suicide each day. (http://www.forbes.com/fdc/welcome_mjx.shtml)
FIVE: Making choices:
The Gracies offer Austin the skills to see there is another choice to be had when confronted by a bully.
They begin with physical skills, layering more and more understanding of the physics of movement and momentum; but that is just foundation. Astride this cement is psychological training. They have Austin practice being assertive. They ask him whether he believes, then they train some more. They offer an idea to an uncertain mind. They train the body to support that idea, and in time the mind will follow. The mind comes to taste the word "No" as shield and weapon.
SIX: Feeling Heard: "I'd rather die standing than live life on my knees." There are times in all our lives when we need strength and we are not sure where to get that strength from. The very act of being human is the need to have control over ourselves. So many of our illnesses and traumas and shed tears alone at night come from a loss of control.
The bully in the most intimate of way strangles us. It is a pact of isolation. The act of bullying is crafted to be a secret, done with stealth, it needs a cloak of darkness to ensure the poison seeps deep into our psyche. The bully wants us to remain mute and our community deaf. Rener and the Gracie Academy offer the village in the face of uncertainty and this becomes the strength to carry on. It is being heard by virtue of being asked to help out, come along, being given an important job. It sheds light on the path out of despair. To be heard is to be made visible. Again the application to our returning veterans is apparent.
SEVEN: Unconditional Love. The Gracies treated Austin and his family with such respect, sensitivity, and interest that it creates the potential for trust. To trust ourselves is birthed in these episodes. The Gracies ushered this family into their lives and pledged to take such interest in their son, to be so curious about his development, to take such joy in this event that the pain of the assault would be melted by love. To give of our time is the highest expression of love. To act without attachment to personal gains and just revel in the joy of the learning we see before us, is unconditional love. The Gracies gave Austin signed pictures of himself with some elite MMA fighters, as well as a set of Official Gracie Garage Grappling Mats. They awarded Austin his first belt and stripe to remind Austin of what he had accomplished. Rener says on the last day, "we felt it important to recognize that, beside the fact that he deserved it, it was a good step in letting him know he is making progress, whether he sees it or not, we believe it, we see it, we want him to take it home to continue.'
When people of note and stature signify our steps of striving to be better, we can hear compounded across time the grandfathers words: "you have no idea what your potential is."
Our society is beset on all sides with difficult issues to solve. An epidemic of bullying may be the canary in the coal mine, as our children's actions, no doubt, reflect our wider world. When we work together towards a common goal we bring to bear our skills, we see our neighbor's generosity, we share a glass of lemonade under the hot sun, we see a glimpse of what their potential is and by virtue of being there, they see ours.
Simple. No actually.
There are Laws of Inspiration and Rigor and Visibility and Potential here.
I am not wise enough to make them apparent but know instinctively what I felt when the closing seconds of this video played. I see fathers with 6 year old sons and daughters tossing thick softballs at bat welding newbies. A swing and a miss. A swing and a miss.
Eventually, a tip. Dad stoops down and collects the balls to do it again. And looking on from a distance I miss my father painfully and wish I could crack time for a swing more in front of my smiling proud dad. How much better would I be if I could just have had a little more of his time.
Newton's First Law: Uniform Motion, his Second Law: Force and Momentum and The Third Law: Action and Reaction.
Watch this clip and we see how time can be measured in the hands of good intentions.
The Gracies did something remarkable here, as they make explicit what we all know implicitly. A glimpse can be all it takes. The Gracies had an idea and that made all the difference.
West Vancouver, BC