I spend $80 a month to get choked out between another man’s thighs. And I like it. Yes, you guessed it- I am a newly minted member of a local jiu jitsu gym. No, I’m not a former Navy SEAL, and I never wrestled in high school. I don’t watch UFC and I haven’t been in a street fight. Actually, I have spent an embarrassing amount of my life avoiding uncomfortable situations. When I was in elementary school, the way I showed the cute girl I liked her was by avoiding eye contact and ignoring her for the next three years. In middle school, I chose sports that were noncontact because hey- who likes getting hurt? In college I enrolled in a major not because I was interested in the subject, but because I felt it would be easy and wouldn’t stretch me too far. This has led to jobs that are safe, secure and entirely without soul. The end result of these decisions is a disappointed man living far from his heart. A man who is afraid of failure and risk. A man who is scared to step out on a limb and trust God. Because for decades I have chosen the easy path, and not the narrow and untamed path of following Jesus. Until late last winter, when I sensed a shift. I felt it was time to enter into the things that scare me. And it started with learning to take a hit. Enter, jiu jitsu.
I first came across jiu jitsu when listening to the Jocko Podcast. If you haven’t listened to it before, I sincerely recommend doing so. Listener discretion is advised though, this ain’t your gospel choir variety show. But it is very, very good. Among his many accolades (retired Navy SEAL commander, author of several books, all-around badass), Jocko Willink is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. If you’re not familiar, jiu jitsu is a form of martial arts that focuses on submissions, chokeholds, and ground attacks. It requires technique, strength, and strategy. While boxing could be likened to checkers, jiu jitsu is most definitely chess. And if jiu jitsu is chess, then Jocko Willink is Señor Bobby Fischer.
In numerous episodes and interviews, Jocko praises the many benefits of jiu jitsu. Strength building, weight loss, and stress reduction to name a few. But perhaps the single greatest reward of training jiu jitsu is the confidence it builds. When I heard Jocko tout that line, my ears perked. Confidence is something I lack. When I was young, I was subjected to some pretty rough bullying. In kindness, my dad wanted to teach me how to fight back. But teaching wasn’t his forté. I can’t remember all the details of my one and only lesson, but it had something to do with being in the backyard for 20 minutes, learning to make a fist, and feeling absolutely terrified. Not exactly a Mr. Miyagi-Daniel LaRusso scenario. Fighting, it seemed, was not for me.
Later in life, I’d hear whispers of a weekend fight from the highschool press corps. I would nod in faux understanding, as if I were versed in the complexities of hand-to-hand combat. I may have even added a few critiques to really sell the show. Or I’d see highlights from a boxing match and secretly wonder why someone would sign up for (and seemingly enjoy) that sort of insanity. And yet, for millennia grappling has been a part of masculinity. I mean, even Jacob (Israel) went a few rounds in the ring. Whether it’s the illicit high school version or the Vegas million dollar purse- sparring is a bygone way of answering the question– “Do I have what it takes?” But I didn’t have the answer to that question. At least not in this particular way. So God went after that.
After watching a plenitude of YouTube videos and hours of self-debate, I signed up for jiu jitsu. When I opened the door to the warehouse-turned-gym, I could immediately sense the significance of it all. Somehow the smell of vinyl mats and sweat let me know I was on the right path. My first several classes were…awkward (“Pardon me sir, but my leg and his head are to go where, exactly?”). But I pushed through and the effects were substantive, in a way that can only be exchanged from man to man.
At the end of my very first class, we jumped right into sparring. Terror ensued. That kind of whole-body terror where your spine tingles and you suddenly have to pee. I wanted to raise my hand and remind the teacher that I was a jiu jitsu virgin, and perhaps I should just observe. Or run away. I had many valid concerns– what if I get hurt? What if I make a weird noise, or fart in the middle of the roll? Am I going to die? Why did I eat that burrito for lunch? But I had sat in the stands for enough of my life. It was time to be the man in the arena.
Quickly the cadre of sparrers paired off. Of course I was matched with a 6’7”, 245-pound glass-eating former NFL linebacker with tattoos on his face. He drooled blood and had the look of death in his eyes. I heard growling from the depths of his expanse. At least that’s how he seemed in my panicking imagination. We performed the pre-match hand-slap/fist-bump ritual. The gesture is a courtesy and meant to acknowledge readiness, but to me the message was loud and clear: “I’m going to kill you”. And so it began.
Upon impact, my body made a hefty “THUD” on the mat, like a bag of concrete on wet grass. For the first time in 33 years, I had taken a real hit. And to my surprise, I didn’t die. I didn’t shatter like a porcelain figurine. And I didn’t curl up into a ball humming “Rockabye”. Instead, I fought back. Spastically, to be sure, sort of like when a cat gets stuck in the window blinds- but I responded nonetheless. And even though I was quickly submitted, I could feel the offering of initiation upon me. I was engaged in combat, and it was good for my soul.
As my time in jiu jitsu continues, I’ve learned there are even more benefits than what Jocko alludes to on his podcast. Namely, the refreshing experience of an activity where the objective is astonishingly clear. Submit or be submitted. Survive and win, or else you lose. It is that simple. In my life where the goals are often fuzzy, undefined, and sit somewhere in the gray, it is a gift to be involved in something that is so very black and white.
Another effect of jiu jitsu is the sheer authenticity of it all. There is no room for the poser as your consciousness fades while surviving a guillotine choke. The false-self suddenly takes a back seat when your elbow is bending in unholy ways. You just cannot pretend in jiu jitsu. The ol’ “fake it til you make it” approach will get stomped out by an armbar from hell. And I love that. I need that. In so many areas of life I can coast along, hiding behind whatever fig leaf I can find that will keep me from truly engaging. But not in jiu jitsu. You either know it or you don’t, and the other guy on the mat is going to figure that out real quick.
At the time of writing, I have been practicing jiu jitsu for six months. And as much as I’d like to say that I’m rolling with the best of them, quickly receiving promotions and belt-color changes, this is simply not the case. And it’s really not the point. The point is I can feel my confidence growing. Yes, I am getting stronger and faster and being affirmed in that. But more importantly a settledness is developing that comes from knowing I can take a hit and actually fight back. And through it all somehow those wounds from the elementary schoolyard are starting to heal. That terrified little boy in the backyard with his dad is finally getting an answer to his question: I have what it takes. I may not be a black belt or a Navy SEAL, but in this I am walking with God. And that alone is worth all the armbars in the world.