The following fable was inspired by a real student.
ONCE UPON A TIME in a town called Practice, Practice lived a young man named Flimsy Fist. Flimsy Fist was born in the nearby village of Neglectville, where he lived with his brother and angry parents. His mother and father beat him so bad that the State had to take Flimsy Fist and his brother away from his parents. After living in one foster home after another, Flimsy Fist was finally invited to live with two kind and loving monks who were committed to helping him heal from his physical and emotional wounds.
Although Flimsy Fist now lived in a safe and loving sanctuary, he still suffered from fear and low self-esteem. He didn’t think the two monks would actually let him live with them forever. He thought that any day now they would kick him out—or kick him around, just like his parents. He longed to feel brave and strong, but he didn’t know how.
Only one thing made Flimsy Fist feel better.
Every day on the walk home from school, Flimsy Fist stopped at a local martial arts school. He’d peer into the windows and watch as the students punched, blocked, and kicked like battle-ready samurais. He wanted the courage they had, but he was too afraid to ask how they got it. Besides, he thought he was too weak for martial arts.
One day, Flimsy Fist was especially awed by the student warriors, so much so that he didn’t notice that the master instructor, Fighting Spirit, was standing right next to him by the window. Fighting Spirit was well known in Practice, Practice for his physical strength, mental toughness, and peaceful spirit. He produced the town’s most powerful and promising leaders.
“Hello, son,” Fighting Spirit said in a deep, gentle voice.
Flimsy Fist looked up, eyes wide, not knowing what to say. He managed to eek out a weak, “Hi.”
“What is your name?” the master asked.
“My name is Flimsy Fist,” the boy mumbled.
“Hmm, interesting name,” Fighting Spirit said.
The master instructor stood before Flimsy Fist with his hands cupped together behind his waist. The teacher’s huge body blocked the afternoon sun, producing a halo effect around his head.
“You come here every day,” Fighting Spirit said, “but you never come in. Today, why don’t you come in for a lesson?”
Flimsy Fist’s face lit up, but he was afraid to show his excitement. “O.K. I guess,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
“No, not O.K.,” Fighting Spirit said.
Flimsy Fist looked confused.
“Lesson No. 1,” Fighting Spirit said, holding up his forefinger. “When presented with an opportunity, do not decide beforehand whether you can succeed. Simply say, ‘Yes, sir or yes, ma'am!’ and try your best,” Fighting Spirit said.
“Oh, O.K. … I mean, yes, sir!” Flimsy Fist said excitedly.
With that, Fighting Spirit opened the door for the boy to enter the training hall. When Flimsy Fist walked into the dojo, he was overcome with calmness. The dojo was big and bright. U.S., Japanese, and South Korean flags hung above a long line of mirrors, as did a rainbow of belts. Before the long line of mirrors, students kicked and punched with a force Flimsy Fist had never felt watching from the window outside. Their energy was electric, and Flimsy Fist wanted to feel powerful just like them.
“Ready to train?” Fighting Spirit asked.
“Yes, sir!” Flimsy Fist said in a loud, confident voice.
“Excellent!” Fighting Spirit said. “Now you’re getting it.”
Fighting Spirit took Flimsy Fist in a corner of the room, teaching him how to make a firm fist: curling the first joints of the fingers, then curling the joints a second time, then pulling the thumb over the forefinger and middle finger to lock in the fist.
Flimsy Fist immediately felt strong, like he could punch through a brick wall. But when Fighting Spirit held out a target and told Flimsy Fist to hit it with the first two knuckles of his fist, his punch was weak. Flimsy Fist hit the target hard, but he didn’t keep his fist tight and he hurt his hand.
“Lesson No. 2,” Fighting Spirit said. “Always make a firm fist before striking.”
“Yes, sir,” Flimsy Fist said, feeling a little embarrassed.
“Do not be discouraged,” Fighting Spirit said. “Focus and try again.”
Fighting Spirit presented the target pad and Flimsy Fist struck it again, this time with a more firm fist.
“Good!” Fighting Spirit said. “Now, again. Punch.”
Pow! Flimsy Fist hit the target again, this time a little harder than before.
“Great!” Fighting Spirit said. “Again.”
“But I already did it,” Flimsy Fist said. “I want to learn something else.”
“Learn to do this well first,” Fighting Spirit ordered.
“But I already did,” Flimsy Fist said, beginning to get frustrated and teary-eyed.
Flimsy Fist hung his head. Although he wanted to be strong and powerful like the other students, he didn’t realize how they became fierce. He didn’t realize that they had become strong and powerful only after spending many hours, days, weeks—even years—practicing the same blocks, kicks, and punches over and over. It had been so easy for Flimsy Fist to watch them train through the window; fantasizing about being strong was so much nicer than putting in the hard work necessary to actually be strong.
Fighting Spirit had worked with similar students before. He knew Flimsy Fist must have had a hard life so far, but he also knew that because he had lived through such a hard time that Flimsy Fist could be strong. Fighting Spirit would have to find the right words to help Flimsy Fist understand the value of practice, practice, practice.
The next day, Flimsy Fist returned to the school, ready to try again.
“Flimsy Fist, what made the Grand Canyon beautiful?” Fighting Spirit asked when the boy walked in the door.
Flimsy Fist didn’t know, and was afraid to answer incorrectly. He silently shrugged his shoulders.
Finally, Fighting Spirit said, “Water.”
Flimsy Fist nodded that he understood, but he didn’t. A second later, he asked, “But how can water make something so pretty?”
“Because water is strong,” Fighting Spirit said.
Again, Flimsy Fist didn’t understand. “How can water be strong?” the boy asked. “It slips through my hands when I wash my face at night.”
“Ah, but water is very powerful, especially when it practices,” the master said.
“How can water practice?” Flimsy Fist asked.
“How can it not?” Fighting Spirit said. “From the beginning of time, every day, water has flowed through the Grand Canyon. Every day the water runs the same path, and every day it wears a deeper and deeper path into the rock. After years of running the same path, water helps the canyon show its inner beauty and strength.
“Without practice, the Grand Canyon would just be a bump on the earth,” Fighting Spirit said. “Now, young man, which would you rather be: water or a bump on the earth?”
Flimsy Fist’s eyes widened. “Water!”
“Good!” Fighting Spirit said. “Now, hit this target.”
“Yes, sir!” the boy yelled.
From that day forward, Flimsy Fist worked hard, sweat a lot, and felt the soreness of his forearms. Slowly, his techniques began to improve. It wasn’t as hard to focus on keeping a tight fist, for he had done it so many times, his fingers knew how to curl properly on their own. His forearms were as big and strong as those of Popeye.
One day, Fighting Spirit asked Flimsy Fist to again show him his punches.
“Yes, sir!” Flimsy Fist said, hitting the target with such great confidence and force that it knocked Fighting Spirit back on his heels.
The master smiled gently. “You have learned well,” he said.
“Thank you, sir!” Flimsy Fist said proudly.
“But now something isn’t right,” the teacher said.
Flimsy Fist’s heart sank. Even though he had made great improvements, he was sure he had disappointed his instructor.
Fighting Spirit put his arm around the young man’s shoulder. “Your name does not fit your new courageous character and strong fighting spirit anymore. So from now on, you will be known as Fighting Fist.”
Fighting Fist beamed with joy. “Thank you, sir,” he said humbly.
Fighting Spirit nodded, and then motioned for Fighting Fist to join his classmates in the day’s punching drill.
Today, Fighting Fist still lives with the two loving monks, and one day at a time, he has learned to trust them and other more and more. He still studies martial arts, and today his perseverance and commitment to practice has become a deep thread that weaves in and around every aspect of his life—revealing his true beauty.