“There's a fencing analogy for that"*

Fencing changes your brain. Okay, I don't have neurological proof for this (yet), but I do know that since I have been fencing, it is difficult not to see my everyday interactions off the strip in terms of fencing. I would be tempted to call these "lessons for daily life" if that did not seem to imply that one could somehow take these observations and "apply" them without having to fence. I see what I see because I am fencing. Friends who do not fence are often mystified by what I am talking about.

For example, fencers talk about "keeping distance". Now, I am by no means sure that even yet I know what this means, at least in the sense of being able to do it, but one of the things that I think it means is the sensation one has of pushing or being pushed. One fencer is moving in a way that forces the other to respond. Visually, at least to those who do not know how to keep distance, this can simply look like one fencer moving forward while the other moves back, but what is critical here is who has, in Japanese terms, sen, the control or initiative in the bout.

The interesting thing about keeping distance is that the one in control is not necessarily the one moving forward. Sometimes it is the one moving back who is actually leading the action while the other follows. But neither does it mean that simply moving forward, "pushing" the other fencer, is the way to gain control. You can push and actually feel yourself losing control, as you step into the other fencer's distance such that she can now take the initiative and attack.

Fencers will know what I'm talking about, at least those who have developed the sense of distance. I only started understanding what I think it means when, one day, I had the same sense of pushing against another person not in a bout, but in a conversation. Suddenly, I realized that there was such a thing as keeping distance while trying to explain an idea or persuade someone to do something for me.

If I "pushed" at the wrong moment, my interlocutor (sorry, awkward big word, but it seems to fit) would simply run away, i.e. disagree with me. But if I moved by way of my argument ever so gently into her space, making a suggestion here, a point (or feint) there, then she would be drawn to where I wanted her to be. Sometimes, of course, the movement has to be quicker: a surprise, so as to catch someone off guard (yes, the metaphor actually means something here!).

The secret, or so it would seem, is to lead without letting your opponent realize she is being led.

All well and good as an insight, but does this mean I now know how to keep distance? Yes and no. Because, here's the thing. Telling myself to stop when I feel myself pushing too hard, either in a bout or in a conversation, is entirely different from doing so. It is as I said at the beginning: the analogy works as an insight, but not really as a lesson because what I've learned is not so much a secret as a feeling, to recognize which I have to have been in both a bout and a conversation to have.

This is what I mean when I say fencing changes your brain. I see things now that I could not see before. It is not just that fencing has, as we say, changed my perspective; it has created a vision of the world that was not there before, at least not for me. To put it in slightly different terms, it is the difference, as C.S. Lewis once put it, citing Samuel Alexander, between Enjoyment (being within an experience) and Contemplation (looking from the outside at that experience).*

Lewis's moment of insight came one day when he was standing in his toolshed**:

"The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, ninety-odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences."

Learning to fence, like--and here's the really important analogy--learning to pray, is stepping into the beam. There is nothing from the outside that can prepare you for it; there is no substitute for stepping onto the strip. But once you do, everything changes; your whole previous picture of the world vanishes. Even more important, you can now see (or, at least, begin to see) things that previously you did not even know existed. Like that mysterious opening into which to make your attack. Or God.

*Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1955).
**"Meditation in a Toolshed" (1945).


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