The Way of the Warrior: Knowing When You’ve Lost

One of my favorite scenes in the movie Seven Samurai — which I previously called the best movie ever made — comes during the search for samurai to defend the village. Kyuzo, a superb swordsman, fights a training duel with another samurai, using bokken (wooden swords). They clash, but since they are using training weapons, no one is injured. The second swordsman says, “Ai uchi,” which means that they both killed each other (or would have if the blades had been live). No, Kyuzo says, I won, and turns to walk away. The second swordsman is furious, and insists on a fight with live blades. And Kyuzo kills him with the same cut he used before.

Every time I see it, I am reminded of how important it is to know when you’ve lost. Most of the battles the average person faces in life are not fights to the death, so acknowledging defeat is not so much about possibly saving your own life, but rather about recognizing that continuing to fight won’t get you anywhere. If you’re too blind to recognize defeat, you probably won’t see opportunity when it comes around.

I’ve been thinking about this because when I was teaching an Aikido weapons class the other day, one of my students refused to end a paired kata by lowering his sword. “I don’t want to learn to surrender,” he said. I explained that when the kata is done properly, his opponent’s sword would be touching his throat. In a real fight, continuing to struggle would just get him killed; in training, continuing to struggle shows that he doesn’t understand what happened.

Besides, the position he sees as “surrender” is actually an alert position, one from which it is possible to make an opening if the other person makes a mistake. Acknowledging defeat does not mean giving up; it merely means recognizing the situation.

It’s not an easy thing to do. Nobody likes to lose. Our egos — like that of the samurai Kyuzo killed — get in the way. But dying — or getting fired or beat up or arrested — just so you can say you didn’t surrender is not a good strategy.

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Nancy Jane’s collection Conscientious Inconsistencies is available from PS Publishing and her novella Changeling can be ordered from Aqueduct Press. All fifty of the short-short stories she posted as part of her year-long Flash Fiction Project are available here.

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