In which the writer contemplates the war in Ukraine, and talks about martial arts as a vehicle for good.
“Please stop talking about your bloody rats” my mother says as she sits in front of her computer screen across from mine.
For various reasons, I’d spent the week working from her flat in Trondheim, observing the news of the Ukraine war as told by Norwegian TV reports and the ever-reliably depressing 24/7 bitesize atrocity-horror that Twitter delivers.
Talking about rats in an increasingly gushing albeit manic manner has been my way of offsetting my own reactions to the event, a veritable “happy place” that has prompted my best friend to send a Daily Mail article of a woman with 50 rat children of her own. “I love you, but please don’t turn into this woman,” she wrote.
Point taken. In the case of my mother, I reverted, as per family tradition, to the subject of news, something there rarely ever was much of a break from -- for better or worse -- in our home.
“Mum, why did you send me an article about rapist Russian soldiers just as I was walking home from the gym. I paid 200 Kroner for these endorphins, please just let me enjoy them,” was one conversation we had. This is how boundary setting looks in a family that -- for better or worse -- has always marched to the beat of current events.
Children of the revolution?
I was born in Budapest in 1989 on my father’s hunch that the Soviet Union was set to crumble. He reported on those unfolding events in what was ultimately described as one of the “best years in history,” according to one historian. The good guys won.
The yoke of communism was crushed. In some cases -- as in Czechoslovakia -- thanks to an entirely peaceful movement. The nickname I accrued as a result of the timing I chose to begin existing in the world was the fond “child of the revolution”. I ceased growing at the age of three and took up the hobby of shattering window panes with my voice shortly thereafter. Joke. Sort of. Another nickname I enjoyed was “Sarah Screamer”.
After 1989, we all didn’t exactly live happily ever. But at least we could vote for our own leaders and no one needed to worry that much about whether their neighbours would shit talk them to the secret police. There was genuine hope for a better and fairer world after decades of oppression.
“OK, OK, yes, sure,” my mother replied when I asked her to hold off on the news horror after 6p. We ate Hungarian chicken soup, watched the cascade of snow outside our window, and settled on an X-men film in which the things being blown up were fictional things and not real people’s homes and where the good guys ultimately won. What a relief that was.
A nose for news?
Facetious comments about rats and sport and war aside, there isn’t much genuine escaping to be done, and there’s only so much respite available from the pervading sense of powerlessness that comes with bearing witness to an event like the war in Ukraine.
As journalists, our task is to make as accurate assessments of the unfolding events as possible in a way that determines the most likely future outcome.
That’s actually really tricky, especially when so many of our own biases come into play, and when the stakes are so incredibly high. When the intensity of emotion is all-pervasive. I’ve -- in the past -- been told to “trust my gut” and “smell out a story”. Savvy journalists are spoken of as having a ‘nose’ for news. When a beat is as broad as it is these days for most journalists -- i.e. the world and everything in it -- I’m not sure how accurate that nose can actually be.
Being told to trust your gut is as useful a piece of advice as it is unhelpful. The gut is a wellspring of emotional data points accrued via personal experience and the passing down of family experience. There is wisdom to be gleaned here, but it does not tell the full story, and never can.
Such rhetoric carries the same weight as being told to trust your intuition and apply only that in all facets of life, as if emotion alone carries all the relevant data points we need to live a good life. By good I also mean an ethical one of sound judgment, as opposed to the pursuit of pure personal fulfillment.
This is basically the same intellectual maneuver Paltrow advises women with her new age goobledee gook, and Rogan touts with his blustering macho fight talk. Compelling in its simplicity and in how it frames the individual’s place in the world, but ultimately unyielding, potentially immoral, and highly corruptible.
Putin --a real Judoka?
Journalists and analysts who remember the Cold War have come out in force to analyse the new chapter (a much needed slice in the analysis pie, of course). They will also need to do the work of acknowledging their own blind spots and their own hubris. The world is different now. And the idea of the all-knowing journalist was always a facade anyway.
This is especially the case in determining the outcome in Ukraine based on one extremely troublesome variable: Putin. What is going on in that man’s head? Think pieces abound.
There’s talk of his machismo, his imperialistic designs, his (supposed) love of risk, his brooding mistrust of the world and everyone in it, the little violin he pulls out and plays to the Russian people about how mean NATO is to him, his KGB background and all the deviousness that comes with that, his underpants poisoning and his ridiculous long table.
But what game is he actually playing here? What losses is he willing to count at the end of all of this. I don’t think he even knows the answer to that.
If he is the chess player so many think pieces have described him as, his game isn’t exactly masterful and no one -- except maybe the fleet of dolled up flight attendants he filmed himself explaining his motives to -- is impressed (actually, one suspect that they, too are rolling their eyes). He’s just a boy with an armory of war toys that don’t even work that well.
If he’s not a very good chess player, then maybe we should think further out of the box and ponder his other hobbies. The fight nerd in me reflected on his Judo background. I have no Judo training myself. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (and perhaps wrestling) is the closest martial art I’ve come into contact with, and which I understand has a lot to do with rolling with the (metaphorical) punches, calmly working various levers of pain, confusion and power to force your opponent into submission.
But done properly, it’s also a strategic game. Fighters put in a great deal of research ahead of the event to determine their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses and thereby develop a strategy which of course becomes their big secret.
The stronger fighter can work on strong-arming maneuvers, the weaker will have to think a lot more carefully in terms of applying clever levers and evasive movements. Both will want to pull out of their hats new, unpredictable repertoires that their opponent cannot anticipate.
But as I said, Judo might be different. I spoke to my neighbour, who I knew had taken Judo pretty seriously since childhood. “I was a pretty crazy kid,” he had previously told me, rubbing his shoulder which was recovering from an injury that had forced him off the mat for a long stretch of time. “My mum didn’t know what to do with me, so she sent me to learn Judo. That calmed me down”.
I asked whether, from the perspective of a Judoka, Putin’s maneuvers seemed somehow recognisable.
“Oh my God, he’s not even that good at Judo, it’s just all part of his bullshit propaganda,” he said. “Sure, he’s a black belt, but his fights are staged. They bring in these top fighters and basically tell them to lose. It’s really embarrassing. I’m so glad the Judo Federation kicked him out when the war started”.
So there we have it. Even Putin’s so-called love of risk and blustering man-on-man tussling is a Potemkin village. I can’t really think of a better example of toxic masculinity’s cowardly underbelly than that one.
Strength and self-esteem
But the matter remains, that a coward cowering in the Kremlin with his big boy war toys has accrued a dominant enough position vis-a-vis the world to unleash heartbreaking destruction in what is ultimately a plea for attention and recognition. And we spectators have to do the work of paying him that attention when there’s so many other pressing issues to address.
For my own part, the witnessing has brought up experiences of my own, among them, the creeping sense of powerlessness that came with witnessing Hong Kong’s beleaguered fight for freedom. I’d like to pretend that 2019 was the year Sarah “child of the revolution” came out in full force. But she did not. She had burnt herself out worrying about the weight of the world and was checking out.
That was the year I really got into sports, having never shown any aptitude before, having channeled most of my emotions into my work -- for better and for worse -- up until that point.
For many reasons, I fell in love with gym culture and ultimately martial arts. And not for the boring reasons. The silly slogans and the sexy bodies, and the weird competitiveness of it all. The inescapable, eye-rolling machismo.
In the face of the crushing nihilism that runs through the fabric of our generation, it was just nice to get a high five for lifting something heavy. I went from seeing the racking up of numbers on my barbell as something so arbitrary to work on given all the other terrible things that required my attention, to something to get excited about.
I remember the first time I realised I had “freakish” strength. I was pissed off about something silly, and, tasked with throwing a ball at the ceiling, I made the room shake with a force that caused dust to stream down from above. The owner of the gym -- the city’s first professional female MMA fighter -- came up and removed the ball from my hands. “I’ve never seen that before,” she said.
Self-esteem ultimately derives from feeling like you are doing something well, and is very much helped along by being recognised for that. As I felt I was losing my journalism mojo (at a time when it was really needed, actually), I’d found something new that I could take pride in.
MMA the “blood sport” gets a bad rap for its brutalism. But it can be much more than that, it really depends on how you are operating, with whom, and with which motives. Not everyone just wants to throw their weight around and show off. In fact, those are the fighters that kind of get shunned if you’re training at the right place.
MMA as therapy
One woman I often paired up with talked about MMA as a way to contain and process her emotions around the unfolding events. She had recently launched a new business that was struggling due to the protests. She was in a position many Hongkongers struggled with. Understood the value of the pro-democracy movement, worried about their own livelihoods. That’s a very uncomfortable, ambivalent space to be in.
For my part, it has helped do a lot of emotional work. I like working with my mind when it is a place of high-octane problem solving, and I like the mover in me that is brought out under stress. Playful, assertive, quick-footed, kind of incorrigible.
I like saying “nice” when someone outsmarts me with a clever combination, and I see the value in working to rewire some of the faulty algorithms of conflict management that do take place on an instinctual level.
I noticed that recently on my return to mat prompted by the emotions this war has brought up in me. Over-relying on my ability to withstand pain, I ate far too many punches in a tit-for-tat with a woman I’d previously floored (using my favourite trick -- goading a roundhouse kick, trapping the offending leg under my armpit, gently pulling it towards me such that the my opponent starts to lose her (or his) balance, and the swinging it in the opposite direction as she takes a tumble. Really, it's a very fun sequence if you can dampen the initial force of the kick quickly enough and stay stable yourself. Low centre of gravity ftw).
She was coming on strong and I was retaliating, and ignoring the fact that my reflexes aren’t what they were after a long break from the sport. Hubris right there. I paid my price for it, felt stunned and dizzy all the way home, which at least provided a nice little break for this brain that still too often overheats itself with thought and worry. Next time, I’ll be more careful, I’ll remember to leave my ego where it belongs. The bin.
Most of all, what I like about fighting is being able to put my emotions to bed after a session, and taking on the day with far more rationalism than I would otherwise. And I like knowing I am brave, and strong, and can get back up again quickly when I fall.
A Berlin-based writer engages in the study of belonging and in-between places after years spent faraway from 'home'.