Some years back, I wrote a story in aphorisms called “Thirty-One Rules for Fulfilling Your Destiny.” (It’s available free at Curious Fictions and is in my BVC collection Conscientious Inconsistencies.) Rule 8 reads: “The male way of warriorship has been defined for thousands of generations. It is possible that there is a female way of warriorship. Think on these things, but not when your enemies are attacking.”
Having spent more than half my life in the martial arts, I’m well-versed in the principles and myths of warriorship, which tend to be phrased in terms coded male. Some of them are sound ideas, useful for all warriors and, indeed, most humans. Others are tall tales, overinflated ideas used to put a certain kind of man at the forefront of society.
I’ve also spent the past few months training in and thinking deeply about empowerment self defense developed for women. And while many of the principles of the way of the warrior are of use to women — pay attention, speak firmly, walk with confidence — a lot of the more toxic myths are not.
One useless myth is the idea that a warrior must be stoic, must suck it up, must not show emotion. When I taught my first self defense class recently, I had people fight duels with pool noodles. They had fun, and they laughed. And it suddenly dawned on me that laughter was integral to the path of warriorship, that, among other things, it represented the joy that comes from using your body well and knowing you can do something.
It occurs to me that I used humor a lot in teaching Aikido, and that so did many of my favorite teachers, both men and women. Aikido is built on traditional Japanese budo, but there’s a lot of joy in training and it comes out in laughter on the mat.
Of course, while Aikido is a martial art drawn from Samurai tradition, it is also about converting the way of war into the art of peace. So upending traditional myths is not out of place on the mat, even when one is dressed in a hakama and swinging a katana.
And that brings me to story, because stories about warriors are important in our culture, and maybe in all cultures. It’s well past time to question the stories we all know, because a lot of them are not true and perpetuate ideas that need to be consigned to the dust bin.
Let’s take the lone hero as an example. The Lone Ranger is probably the most iconic version — never takes off his mask, never stays around after the fight is over, is known to no one except his “faithful Indian companion,” who isn’t going to blow his cover.
The Lone Ranger was originally a Texas Ranger, a real life state police force that has a huge mythology of its own. One of the best known is “one riot, one Ranger” — as if one Ranger was enough to handle any major disturbance.
I’m pretty sure the Rangers send out way more people than one to handle a riot. They certainly used quite a few to handle anti-war protests in Austin back in the day. I remember seeing a wall of Rangers blocking protestor access to the LBJ library dedication.
And then there’s the corrido — ballad — about the Mexican American hero Gregorio Cortez, which has a line about so many rangers just to catch one Mexican. (Cortez is another lone hero, though as I recall from reading a book on the ballad by Americo Paredes, he had a lot of help escaping from all those rangers.)
Further, from the Mexican American viewpoint, the history of the Texas Rangers is an ugly one. A recent book, The Injustice Never Leaves You by Monica Munoz Martinez, documents ugly crimes by Rangers and vigilantes against people along the Texas-Mexico border in the early 20th Century.
I don’t doubt the Rangers are tough guys — I’ve met some — but I don’t think pretending they are super cops or covering up the ugly parts of their history is good for us.
Then there are all those heroes who are the only honest man. They sometimes pretend to be dishonest, but that’s just to suck in the real bad guys. Raymond Chandler did this to perfection with Philip Marlowe. The cops are either stupid or bound by rules or corrupt themselves. And even when Marlowe wins, he still goes home alone. He has no community.
But human beings are social creatures, even cooperative ones. I suspect there are a lot more occasions where a group of people comes together to stop trouble than ones where one lone man does it. (I was once discussing the history of human cooperation with an Aikido friend, and we agreed that one of the first things people cooperated on was probably war.)
Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, which looks at how people come together after disasters, provides another counterpoint. Her discussion of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and how individuals worked together to survive, only to fall victim to bad decisions made by those in authority, gets at something crucial about people: in times of crisis, most of us will take risks to help someone else, even a complete stranger.
It comes to me that we need more stories about heroic communities and fewer about the good guy who rides off into the sunset after saving the town. Replacing the lone male hero with a lone female one doesn’t solve the problem, even if I can enjoy those stories and have probably written a few.
Right now I’m working on a novel that takes place over hundreds of years. There’s no magic or cryosleep in it, so it will of necessity be about a lot of different people. It’s giving me an excuse to rethink the lone hero narrative, because this story is only going to work if a lot of people do the right thing.
I’ll let you know how that works out.