“If It Helps, Do It; If It Doesn't, Don't"

You may recall that I don't have a fencing notebook anymore, having torn up the last one while at the tournament in December. I didn't buy a new one either. But I needed (or so I thought) to keep track of my pool bouts yesterday, so I pulled my emergency notebook out (you know, the tiny Moleskin that I keep in my purse, just in case I don't have a proper notebook handy), and tried to find somebody who had the bout order. Which means I also started writing down my scores from my pool bouts, so that, you know, I could make sure the directors recorded everything correctly. But I never did find someone with the bout order, so I simply had to sit there, not quite knowing when next I was going to be up.
And you know what? It was fine. I have done enough pools now to have a feel for how the bouts go, even if I haven't memorized the exact order. So I didn't panic even when we started double-stripping. I just went to the strip when I was called, and I fenced. By the end of the pool I had, of course, figured out fairly well whom I was going to have to fence next, but I did not, as I have in the past when I had my notebook, spend the whole pool trying to pace myself or anticipating which bouts were going to be harder to fence. But I also learned something about why keeping a notebook was probably a bad idea for me in the first place.
Of the seven women in our pool, I had fenced four of them before, so theoretically, if I had been keeping the kind of notebook that I "should", I would have notes on how all of them fenced. But would this have helped me yesterday? I doubt it. I now doubt it very, very much. How do I know this? Because I caught myself in the middle of the pool, after I had fenced my first two bouts against the strongest fencers in our pool, wondering about how well I had actually fenced them in the past. I was feeling really good about how I had just fenced them, getting more touches on them both than I could ever remember making before, and the thought came to me to look back through the notebook that I no longer have and compare. Which is exactly what I started doing at the previous tournament right before I tore the notebook into shreds.
I'm an historian, right? I am trained to look for patterns in the past, meaningful narratives, cumulative developments. I want my notebook to tell a particular kind of story, one of progressive success. I know that I am fencing better now (even yesterday, after I lost my first DE--sigh) than I was even a year ago. So what happens if, after fencing a bout particularly well, I look in my notebook and find that, in fact, I got more touches on a particular fencer the last time that she and I fenced when, theoretically, I wasn't fencing as well? What does that tell me about how I just fenced? I think you know.
"You suck," it screams back at me. "Look at how well you were fencing before. You're getting worse, not better." Or even worse: "You're not getting better at all. You've spent how many years fencing these same people and you can't get any more touches on them than you could the first time you fenced?" No wonder I ripped up that stupid, lying notebook. Numbers don't lie--but then, they do. So what if I got more touches on her in the past? That doesn't mean that I understood why I got them as well as I understood the touches that I got yesterday. After all, she's also been fencing me for years now; theoretically, she knows how I fence, so she shouldn't be getting hit at all--if, that is, I haven't improved.
Nor does it necessarily help, I have found, to keep extensive notes on how other fencers fence. What if--as happened yesterday with the woman to whom I lost my DE--they change? Then what use are those notes? All they do is keep you, yes, in the past, fencing the previous bouts that you've had, not the one in front of you right at this moment. Maybe you're more tired than you were the last time round; maybe she is. Maybe she has been working out differently the past several months; maybe you have. Maybe, no matter how carefully you tried to get yourself to sleep last night, you simply couldn't. Maybe it's that time of the month. Maybe it isn't, and yet you've had other things on your mind. There are simply too many variables to reduce the outcome to how many touches you got on this or that day, never mind which moves she was favoring in that last bout.
So, as Richard Leonard SJ says St. Ignatius advised his retreatants in their spiritual exercises, "If it helps, do it; if it doesn't, don't." If it helps to keep a notebook about your bouts and opponents, keep one. But if it doesn't, don't. Not everybody prays the same way, not everybody learns the same way. Even more to the point, not everybody has the same anxieties. My tendency is to look to the past for validation, which is fine when I am keeping a record of how many days I have done my meditation or practiced playing my fiddle, but it is deadly when I use it as a way of evaluating how I have just fenced. I don't need a record of how I have fenced, I need to fence the bout that I am fencing now--and then forget about it. The worst thing that I can do, as, again I did in my DE yesterday, is think that the last bout I fenced says anything about how the bout I am about to fence is going to go. I beat my opponent in my DE yesterday in our pool, albeit by only one touch, but I pulled through. I didn't do that in our DE because I was still fencing the previous bout in my head--and she clearly wasn't.
So, "if it helps, do it; if it doesn't, don't." If (as St. Ignatius would put it) something gives you consolation, move towards it, but if it causes desolation, move away. I have been trying to be a different kind of fencer than I actually am, using other people's consolations rather than my own. There is no particular magic in keeping a fencing notebook, just as there is no particular failure in not keeping one. Perhaps for some it is the answer to dealing with their fears; perhaps for others it is a good way to teach themselves how to pay attention to what other fencers are doing. But for me, it is simply wrong. And that's fine.


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