In Theory*


One of the things that I hoped would happen if I started keeping this blog was that I would somehow avoid feeling the way that I am feeling right now, after practice, having lost a bout to one of my clubmates that, in my pride*, I feel that I "ought" to have won. Well, there goes that theory! What is vexing me now is that my friend told me afterwards that she had been reading my blog and found what I said about being fully on the strip, not worrying about anything other than the action of the moment, really helpful** and that she had been thinking about this while we were bouting. And, indeed, she fenced very well and quite appropriately won. Throughout the bout, she stayed relaxed but focused, such that even when the score reached 10-14 against her, she was able to play each touch, one at a time, and come back and win the final touch with the score tied.

On the one hand, I am encouraged (not to mention, flattered) that she found what I wrote made sense and was able to apply it to her own experience on the strip. But, on the other hand, I am, of course, furious that despite being able to describe in words how best to think during a bout, I cannot consistently do it. Which is not to say that even if I had maintained my focus perfectly during the bout I might not have lost; rather, I am angry with myself that I cannot take my own advice and use the bout as simply an opportunity to learn. Instead, here I am, just as I described in my earlier post, still convinced (or, at least, telling myself) that I will never get any better, that others are all clearly improving much more quickly than I am, that it is stupid to expect even to keep up with them, and that if I were as smart as I really think I am, I would be able to figure this out, rather than continuing to bang my head against a problem that is never going to go away. Again, which is all totally unfair, both to myself and to my opponent. It's just so hard not to be jealous--and, therefore, even more angry with myself.

Do other fencing bears have this problem? Well, yes, although not all of them write about it publicly. Last summer, my son took a photo of me talking with another of our friends after she had lost an important bout and was asking herself all of these same things: why can't I do it when I know how to in practice? I try so hard and it just doesn't seem to work. I just don't seem to be getting any better. And so forth. The photo was to remind me that at that point I was the one reassuring someone else that what she was feeling simply wasn't an accurate reflection of her ability as a fencer; that what others could see of her fencing and what she was telling herself didn't match; that all of the practice she had done that year had been worth it for what she had learned; that it was not hopeless. Every word of what I said to her was true and I knew it. And yet, here I am, incapable of believing myself when I say the exact same things about my bout this afternoon.

Another of my clubmates has recently recommended Timothy Gallwey's The Inner Game of Tennis (first published 1974) for what it says about dealing with mental obstacles of this sort. In Gallwey's terms, what I am experiencing is an excess of Self 1, that part of myself that watches and judges while Self 2 is performing some action, for example, fencing--or writing this blogpost. Self 1, a.k.a. the "ego-mind", hates making mistakes and is quick to let Self 2 know about it. Gallwey (p. 19) gives as an example some of the things Self 1 typically tells Self 2 when Self 2 (the one acting) has made an attempt at following Self 1's instructions ("Try harder!") and failed because Self 1 had made her too nervous, translated here into fencing terms: "You have a terrible attack." "You're the worst choke artist in the club." "Everyone else can do that parry; why can't you?" "You never learn." The solution, Gallwey explains, is not better instructions, but changing one's focus from trying to follow instructions at all to simply observing what is going on in the action and non-judgmentally noting its result. In this way, Gallwey argues, we allow Self 2 to learn naturally, simply by observing and doing, much as babies learn to walk. So what if they fall down? Their mothers do not punish them in the way that Self 1 punishes Self 2. What if Self 2 were simply allowed to attend and experiment, without all the expectations that action x should have result y? Then, or so Gallwey argues, Self 2 will actually have the chance to learn from her observations. And so we, like the babies, will learn to walk--or play tennis or fence.

All well and good, except that I was thinking about all of this all during practice having been reading Gallwey's book this morning, and (Self 1 here), "It didn't work!" Well, you will say, of course it didn't, because otherwise Self 1 wouldn't be writing this post about how smart she is and how well she can understand everything that is wrong with her fencing and how Self 2 is just too stupid to know how to implement it. To which Self 1 (self-importantly) replies, "Of course I understand what Gallwey is describing; I've experienced it myself in learning to write. Whenever I try to force myself to say something especially clever or well-phrased, it comes out tortuous and unreadable and usually misses the point, whereas when I let myself say what I'm actually thinking, without blocking or judging, I can say things that even I [Self 1] wasn't aware that I knew." So why, you will say, can't you translate your experience with a pen to your experience with the sword and trust that the actions will come if only you stop judging them?

Ah, well, that is the question, isn't it? The thing is, I did used to tell myself that I was hopeless at writing. For years, I could never write anything formally (e.g. a term paper or dissertation or chapter of a book) without, at some point, hitting a wall of anxiety. Every time I would tell myself, I will get through this without ending in tears, and every time Self 1, who had been directing the whole operation--making outlines, taking notes, being ever so careful not to make a mistake--would suddenly break down in terror and frustration and self-recriminations at the thought of not knowing what to say. And then, through the tears, would come a sunrise, a sudden realization of what I had been trying to write. I would tear apart the draft that I had been working on, throw away everything that Self 1 had most wanted to say (thinking thereby to make herself safe), and risk saying what Self 2 was urging me to say. And so it would go. Self 1, having experienced the success of learning from Self 2, would now be convinced that the next time would be easier and so set about in her usual fashion: making outlines, taking notes, being ever so careful not to make a mistake, only to find that, yet again, she could not control the outcome and must surrender to Self 2, which she never did without a fight. Even now, Self 2 still has to trick her (or is this Self 1 tricking herself?), for example, by beginning work on her next book by starting this blog, public, yes, but much less threatening than writing for her academic colleagues who will sit in on her promotion. As soon as the stakes are higher, the terror returns, and it is all Self 2 (or Self 1A?) can do to surround Self 1 with protective rituals to calm her enough to let go and let Self 2 write.***

I am sure that you can see where this is leading. Self 1, even as Self 2 is writing this, is congratulating herself on her insight (greedy, isn't she?) and vowing to apply it the next time she is on the strip. With, as we can all be sure, predictable results: more instructions, more anxiety, more anger at Self 2 when the instructions don't work, and we'll be back to this blog trying to sort it all out again. I'm only in the middle of Gallwey's book and he's promised to help me out of this cycle of self-blame, but nevertheless I'm worried. His, of course, is far from the first book I've read on how to think oneself out of one's perfectionism (another name for what Self 1 is typically doing), and here I still am. Self 1 craves answers--"keys", "secrets", "theories"--and, despite all experience to the contrary, is convinced that they are out there, somewhere; that if only she can find them, then she will know what to do and need never face such uncertainty again. To which, Self 2 can only reply: "How boring! Do you really only want to have experiences that you can completely control?" Self 1: "Well, no, but I want them to be out of control on my own terms. They're fine as long as I can understand them."

"In theory," as Yogi Berra, quoting Jan L.A. van de Snepscheut, used to say, "there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice there is." I, like others, have typically taken this to mean that you cannot understand a practice fully only in theory, that is, without practicing it. Now, however, I am starting to realize that it may also mean that theory itself interferes with practice, insofar as Self 1 persists in taking it as a solution to, rather than simply a description of, practice. Whether this means that the next time I am on the strip, I am going to be able to stop trying to fence "by the book", I'm not sure. In fact, I doubt it very much. At the moment, Self 1 is simply too strong, too practiced at looking for answers. Even writing this post has given her strength. Who, here, however, is encouraging whom? In Gallwey's description, Self 1 comes across as something of a bully, but as I have been writing this evening, it has become clear to me that, if she is so, it is because she is scared. It is a great deal to ask of her to dispense with all of the exercises upon which she depends to hold chaos at bay and trust only in the moment. The more she is pushed, the harder she is going to resist letting go and letting Self 2 take care of things. If I am going to learn to fence, I am going to have to find some way to convince her that, no matter what happens, she is safe. But how do I do that as long as I am so afraid to lose?

*See Proprintwear's T-shirt "The Seven Deadly Fencing Sins," s.v. Pride: "the belief your opponent can never win the bout." Although, in this case, I really didn't believe that my opponent couldn't win because I've been wearing this T-shirt for several years now precisely in order to remind myself that it is a sin to believe this about your opponent. So now I suppose I'm proud that I realize this or something like that. Sins like pride will get you, coming and going. More on this in subsequent posts.
** See "Am I Getting Any Better at This?"
***Self 1 wants me to tell you that, as far as she can tell, all writers go through this at some point or another, sometimes every time they sit down to write. See Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1995), on how to tune out when all you can hear is "Radio Fuck-you" playing in your head. See above for the kinds of things Self 1 (a.k.a. Radio Fuck-you) tends to say when Self 2 is trying to concentrate.

Picture credits:
(top) Pallas armata: The gentlemans armorie; wherein the right and genuine use of the rapier and of the sword, as well against the right handed as against the left handed man is displayed: and now set forth and first published for the commmon [sic] good by the author. G. A., fl. 1639. Printed at London : By I[ohn] D[awson] for Iohn Williams, at the signe of the Crane in S. Pauls Church-yard, 1639.
(middle) Giacomo di Grassi his True arte of defence: plainlie teaching by infallable demonstrations, apt figures and perfect rules the manner and forme how a man without other teacher or master may safelie handle all sortes of weapons aswell offensiue as defensiue: vvith a treatise of disceit or falsinge: and with a waie or meane by priuate industrie to obtaine strength, iudgement and actiuitie. First written in Italian by the foresaid author, and Englished by I.G. gentleman. Printed at London : [By G. Shaw?] for I. I[aggard] and are to be sold within Temple Barre at the signe of the Hand and Starre, 1594.

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