In Which I Learn that I Know Nothing

I am currently learning how to be not good at something.

At the grand old age of 31 there is little that some analytical thinking skills, Google, and a penknife can’t help me figure out. Adulthood is full of all sorts of little disappointments and accidents, but one does eventually get quite good at the basic business of getting through the day.

Chuck Norris

image from

After several years of waffling, I have finally recommenced with martial arts. I took Tae Kwon Do classes (as well as swimming and diving and piano and acting), when I was a kid. No one will soon be mistaking me for Chuck Norris after my handful of lessons in Hapkido.

I am generally a pretty confident person, convinced, by and large, of my own general competence. In my new uniform, which feels stiff and gigantic, I am shy and apologetic. I ‘ki-hap’ (that’s the shout-y bit) as quietly as I can. I say ‘yes ma’am’ awkwardly to our Saboumnim. Everyone in my class is more experienced than me – they help teach me the five or six things I have learned so far, they give me tips on technique, they tell me I am doing well – and I am embarrassed, and afraid they are bored, or that I will do something wrong and hurt them.

At least once per class I fight down tears of frustration. Anger, sometimes, because how come these people have to tell me what to do? How come they have to witness my ignorance and point it out? And also why do they have to grab my wrist so hard?

And then I remember, this is what it is to begin. It is not my wrist that hurts, it is my ego. Everyone does know more than me, and I can’t learn what they know unless they tell me what to do. They are not judging me – how could I know something I haven’t yet been taught?

Why am I ashamed that I am not good at it yet? Because I am used to being good at things. I am used to feeling, more or less, equal in general knowledge and skills to the with whom people I regularly interact. Which is not to say that this is true, merely that I can move through the world as if it is true. These classes are challenging that. In a very physical way.

And yet, the red-faced moments pass. I keep on kicking or punching or blocking as I am told, and as I keep going, those moments get shorter. And that happens because I am learning to accept that of course I don’t know, that is not bad, it’s just a statement of fact. That I learn when I listen and do as I’m told, when I stop resisting the fact of my own ignorance. It doesn’t mean I know nothing, it just means I haven’t learned this yet.

I’m guessing learning not to get mad at myself will be at least as valuable as the throwing-attackers-and-breaking-their-arm move.

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