Category Archives: Social Commentary

Three Suicides

It was my mother in laws birthday. She took her own life just a few weeks before my wife was set to move to the states with me. And it reminded me of another, much older event.

When I was 15 years old I made a phone call. The summer had come and gone, and my loyal and trusted friend, Vernon King, had not yet returned. He had gone off to camp for the summer, and should have been home weeks earlier. I’d yet to hear from him. School was about to start. Still no word, I called his mom to check up. His sister answered. She was older and had already graduated.

“Is Vernon there”, I asked.

“Vernon’s dead”, she said.

Shamefully, idiotically, I did not believe her. In anger, I hung up.

She called back sometime later, and explained.

This was more than 34 years ago. I don’t remember my words, but I don’t believe I cried. Some days later I remember struggling to carry his coffin. The other pallbearers, all shorter, had me holding one corner of the casket higher than the rest. The dead are heavy.

We laid the coffin to rest, and his extensive family, filled with aunts and grandmothers, began screaming, wailing, and clawing at the open grave. I chose that moment to wander off. Up a hill at the center of the cemetery, I found an office where I called my father for a ride home.

Weeks past. I went back to school. I found myself on the receiving end of a lot of people’s sympathy. I still felt numb, and at no point did I cry. As I watched the reactions of others I began to question myself. Why wasn’t I responding that way?

One evening, after more time had passed, I was busy in my room ignoring whatever it was my father had asked me to do. Mad at my indifference, or the fact that I was probably smarting off (I don’t remember which), he came barging in. Angry, I lashed out, yelling something stupid and insulting. I remember him looking at me from the doorway, first with impatience, and then with something else. I was frozen motionless, sitting on the bed.

He sat down next to me, and hugged me. And at that moment I broke down. I cried for a long time.

I haven’t seen anywhere near the amount of death some have. But I’ve seen enough to know that people react differently to it. For me, there is no rational space for judgment when it comes to the variety of ways human beings grieve. Death is one of the ultimate shocks.

Last month I sat at one of my favorite outdoor restaurants in Portland. It was a beautiful, warm day. Summer had shown its face. It was also my deceased mother in law’s birthday. I met her once, when visiting my wife to be, Salome, in Iceland. I liked her. A few months later, just weeks before Salome’s ticketed date for arrival in the United States, she took her own life.

I was an intimate observer as to the effect that decision had on the woman I love. I know that like Vernon, that day he set about walking the Golden Gate bridge, looking for his spot to jump – rationality had nothing to do with it. But that knowledge doesn’t change the consequences of the action.

It’s misleading to say brain chemistry is a powerful thing. It’s closer to say brain chemistry is perhaps the most powerful thing. Brain chemistry can bring the strongest man to his knees in an instant. It can render anyone out of control. And even for those who hold onto a world view where individual free-will remains a thing, one solid dose of hallucinogenic helps elucidate the absolute power brain chemistry and its associated functions have, on the world we see ourselves inhabiting.

Over the last decade, as her mother’s birthdays have arrived, we’ve tried to turn them into something better. Salome’s sought to use those days as a time to celebrate her mother’s life, and to let our daughters in on a little bit of the goodness that her mother surely owned. That was our goal on this last birthday, as we sat outside at one of our favorite people watching restaurants, with our youngest daughter, Una. We were hoping to let a little darkness out, and bring a little light in, all the while making new, good, happy memories for our four year old.

As we sat there, seeing the sights, I noticed someone walking frantically across the street. This someone was in fact, my oldest friend. I’ve known him for decades. He was a best man at my wedding. He was the first person to ever give me a hallucinogenic. He is a good man. It took a fraction of a second more to realize he was in distress. Moving rapidly, he stopped directly across from us. After a heated conversation with someone else, he turned and looked in our direction. He began jay walking across the very busy four-lane road, demanding cars stop for him with the use of a defiant outstretched arm, as some do when they are either unbalanced, stupid, or have just been in an accident.

On most days I would have rushed across the street to greet him. On most days I would have engaged him. But that day was my wife’s mother’s birthday. That day I was with my 4 year old. That day I was trying to keep it all okay. That day I watched.

He reached the sidewalk on our side, just a few feet from where we sat, but he didn’t see us. He turned and began walking away. Out of instinct and concern, my wife called out his name.

My old friend, now realizing we were there, walked back and stood next to our table. No words left his mouth, no “hi”, no pleasant exchanges. It took me longer than it should have to realize he was in shock.

“Sit down”, I said. “Tell me what’s going on.”

I’ve known the man for a very long time, but I’ve never seen him look the way he did in that moment.

“I just found her”, he said.

He began to explain how, just a couple hours before, he discovered his girlfriend, the love of his life, the woman he had planned to propose to, dead, in the house they shared. She had taken her own life. He found her hanging. He cut her down. He called 911. He attempted CPR. But she had been dead for too long.

I had nothing to offer. No words came to me. As I was searching for something, anything to say, he stood up and left with the person he’d been in conversation with across the street. “I have to go get my things”, he said.

What are the odds? His girlfriend’s manner of death that morning wasn’t similar to my mother in laws. It was identical. I know that what some call synchronicity is more often than not one form or another of selection bias. We are pattern-seeking mammals. And I too find myself tuning out, and throwing up in my mouth, every time someone spouts the ever trite – everything happens for a reason. Tell that to the parents of a child dying of cancer, I think, as I immediately attempt to remove myself from said person’s range of communication. But, of all the days to run into my friend, that one, of all the places to run into my friend, that one, of all the ways people die – that one?

As he walked away, I turned my attention to my wife.

The statistical rarity of the event provided a buffer for Salome, who is every bit the skeptic and realist that I am. How could she, like me, not wonder, at least for a moment, at the coincidence of events? I watched her mind turn from her own loss, to our friends, whom she’d also known since she had moved to Portland ten years previously.

It’s been almost two months now, and I talk to my friend frequently, always through text, never in person. His choice. He says he’s embarrassed to see anyone who knows him. He blames himself for her death. Her family, her children, blame him too. He was in the house when it happened. In another room, ignoring her after an argument.

There is of course the suicide of those terminally ill; people in pain, slowly dying, people who choose their own time. It’s impossible to judge someone like that, if you’ve seen what a disease can do. But there is also the suicide of Vernon, of my friend’s girlfriend, and of my mother in law. That kind of suicide is never rational. That kind of suicide is always insane. I tell myself that no one able to see past a temporary moment would choose a permanent conclusion; that no one capable of seeing the pain suicide creates in those still living, would ‘choose’ to end their own life. Yet it happens.

Heartache. Irrational thought. Confusion. Depression. Mental illness. Brain chemistry. We can describe the symptom or we can describe the cause, but what we cannot do is blame someone else for the kind of suicide Vernon chose.

Human beings find uncertainty uncomfortable. X caused Y, brings comfort. Y happens and we don’t know why, anxiety. But we must resist the urge to judge those still living for the actions of those now dead. Because something is comforting doesn’t mean it is correct. And there is no time where we are more apt to draw inaccurate conclusions, and engage in hurtful, unproductive behavior, than when we are angry and in pain – no time.

There’s been more suicide recently – some unmentioned in this essay. More death. More blame. I’ve been disappointed by the blame. I too am far too quick to judge. It’s a habit I previously did mindlessly, habitually, and without much self-awareness. It’s a habit I’ve fought against by taking the path recommended by Marcus Aurelius. Be lenient with others and strict with yourself, he said. Easier said than done, so I remind myself daily. I have to.

There are still places where judgment is essential. When people continue to display the same abusive behaviors, those behaviors, brain chemistry driven or not, and in the end it’s all brain chemistry driven, become something we call ‘character’ – and only a degenerate or a fool allows people with low moral character around themselves, or those they love. Add to that the dangerous, the abusive, those who demean or emotionally target the weak, those who exploit children, those without shame and therefore without dignity, and the kind of parents who tear down rather than build up their own offspring – and there is still plenty for me to keep away from those I am charged with protecting. But suicide – with all the pain it inflicts on those still alive, suicide, in almost every case, is something we can only blame on those who perform it. And even then, we find ourselves left denouncing only the dead. In time we realize that the dead too, were not in right mind when they ‘choose’ death – and then, who is left to condemn?

I have no solution. I hug my children everyday. I hold my wife. I call and write my close friends. I want them to know I am here. I want them to know they can talk to me. But that’s all I’ve got. Because suicide happens, and blame after the fact just isn’t rational. We need to love and help the living. It’s all any of us have.

The necessity of Tribe

At the last SBG camp, Oct 2016 in Berkeley California, we ended with a question and answer section for all the coaches on the roster. The last question we took was from a white belt that had signed up for camp after just a few weeks of training.

He asked, “what advice would you offer to people just starting their training?”

That’s a good question, and sitting up front were nine coaches, with a combined experience of about 185 years – who offered good answers.

“It’s a long journey. Don’t be in a rush.”

“Trust your coaches and trust the process.”

“Relax, and care about learning more than winning.”

“Don’t get to wrapped up in volume of hours too early – just don’t ever quit.”

“Be reflective, and understand that what we do makes humans better people.”

“Trust the technique, it isn’t whether you escaped, but whether you escaped technically that matters.”

“Don’t be a fighter, be a Martial Artist – or for a time, a Martial Artist who fights. One has a limited life span. The other is for life.

“Give 60% of your energy to making your training partner better and 40% to making yourself better, and you’ll always get more than if you focused on yourself.”

These were all answers as solid as steel. But one answer in particular hinted at something that takes many of us longer to realize – something we recognize with greater clarity as we mature. It came from Chris Conolley, head coach for SBG Alabama:

“Make relationships in your academy. Make friends. Be part of the community.”

We are social primates. We need contact. We need socialization. We need connection. Our growth, our happiness, our very wellbeing, is in so many ways connected to the communities we move within.

Occasionally you’ll run into someone who denies this very human requirement, but in nearly every case, a very gentle scratching of the surface reveals levels of hypocrisy, and or immaturity, that helps to explain that confusion. As my coach Chris Haueter has said, it’s always the guys who claim they don’t care about belts that want the belts the most. Likewise, the folks who deny the need for community tend to be those who need one the most.

Our long-standing institutions, religions, mutual aid societies, and clubs, have long understood this. Whether it was through conscious design, or more likely, enhanced replication due to the tribal feature, we as humans have always had communities.

Once this point is fully understood the question becomes, how do I find a healthy community?

There a few guidelines we can use:

#1 it provides mutual aid and benefit.

Do you benefit from belonging? Are there physical, emotional, or intellectual things you consistently get back from membership? Do you find yourself feeling compelled to give back? Does the tribe make you a better person?

#2 it fosters strength through challenge and individual responsibility through accountability.

Without accountability there are no standards. Without standards, there is nothing to strive for.

Occasionally you’ll get a high level competitor that switches teams. If the coach/athlete relationship is off, sometimes that’s the right thing. However, I rarely see anyone who jumps from school to school develop a really solid BJJ game. It takes long-term training partners and community for that. And the guys who jump ship because someone offers them an easier belt (lower standards) always do themselves a disservice. All truly valuable, long-term relationships, can be hard on occasion, and require tending and care. Including the long-term relationship between student and teacher, athlete and coach – which in BJJ, white to black, is usually at least a decade. But, there are also really meaningful benefits and lessons those relationships offer. Benefits the folks who hop from team to team will never know.

We become stronger through struggle. Struggle requires the willingness to be vulnerable. A healthy community will be a place where you are allowed to fail. Where you are tested. Where it is understood that losing is not just okay, it is an essential part of the process. Because there is no maturing, no thriving, absent worthy effort. And any task that’s made failure proof is at the same time made unworthy.

I am reminded of President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote.

#3 it is a meritocracy.

As I often remind students before an ironman, Jiu-Jitsu belts are only meaningful because they are symbolic of a testable, measurable, fake proof skill-set. Like playing the piano, speaking Mandarin, or being able to swim, you can’t pretend to be good at Jiu-Jitsu and get away with it.

That ability is hard earned. It requires failure after failure, tap after tap. If you don’t lose, a lot, you’ll never learn to win against better and better players. Jiu-Jitsu is a perfect meritocracy that way. And a great Jiu-Jitsu community will also be such a meritocracy. On the mat you’ll have men and women, rich and poor, student and teacher, construction worker and attorney, soldier and doctor, first responder and merchant, police officer and stay at home mom – everyone training together, learning together, growing together – rolling together.

The tribe’s hierarchy will also be a natural reflection of that.

Those men and women in positions of leadership won’t be there because they collect more certificates, shook the right hands, or paid the most money – they’ll be there because they earned it – through hard work in the arts and sciences the tribe practices.

 #4 it’s leadership will understand that leadership means service.

If the top echelon of the tribe is demanding you give over your cars, sex, dignity, or critical thinking skills, that’s not a healthy community – it’s a cult. The late Bhagvan Shri Rashnesh, also known by his hippie-dippy pen name, “Osho” (whose works are sold everywhere that the trite and banal is pedaled to the soft and credulous), was the perfect example of what not to be.

Every true leader, unlike “Osho”, knows that leadership is service and service is leadership. The teachers and coaches are there to serve the students – not the other way around.

In Jiu-Jitsu decades are spent learning the craft. And after much effort and struggle, the coach ends up spending their energy trying to make every student they have better than they themselves were. That is what it means to be a good leader. A strong parent wants their child to go farther than they did. A strong teacher wants their students to do the same.

#5 A healthy Tribe is a family orientated Tribe.

Look around the room. Do you see entire families present? Do the husbands, wives, and children all join in? Is everyone welcome?

Or rather – is it a room full of men?

When I started teaching I had a room full of men. Not just any men, but rather, tough men; men who could survive the training process, or better stated, put up with it.

As time went by more women signed up. The kids needed a place to train. The wives were curious what their husbands were spending so many hours doing, and over years, we developed a Tribe that was in every sense of the word – family orientated.Watch movie online The Transporter Refueled (2015)

Not only do I think that is good thing, I actually think that, if what you’re doing is healthy, it is an inevitable thing.

It may not start that way. Every community starts with a core group. But if the tribe meets all the criteria listed above, if it provides benefit to all its members, if it fosters strength through challenge and personal responsibility through accountability, if it is a meritocracy, and if it’s membership understands that leadership means service – then by definition, it’s natural trajectory will be towards something family orientated. Why? Because as more individual members spend more time with the community, and find more value in being involved with the community, they will want those they love most to also be involved, and those they love most will want to belong too.

A mature male teacher can help teach young students how to be polite, how to shake hands, how to look someone in the eyes and say “yes, sir”, or “no, ma’am” – and other appropriate response knowledge that can be priceless in terms of future success in life; especially when some of the kids come from homes where no strong and positive male role model exists. And study after study has confirmed just how important that influence is. Few things disgust, or anger me more, than the mocking of the vital “male” influence in a young person’s life.

Likewise, if the room is filled with only men, a massive gap will be left within the Tribe. There is a level of attention to detail, intelligence, and relationship, that requires the influence of strong women.

The hubris required to mistakenly believe that either gender is unnecessary within a healthy community of humans is large enough to be considered grotesque – and a mature association wont make that error.

Just as children need community, so too with adults; a healthy Tribe contains stable, mature, intelligent, strong men and women who hold each other to a certain standard of behavior. That grows character.

You can learn a lot about a lot of things, when you’ve spent decades working on any art form. But if you don’t have a community to share it with, a Tribe to pass it on to, then you will miss half the beauty involved in the process.

When we were thinking about how to launch our new SBG video podcast series, we had dozens of first episode ideas. But it was clear to me from the start that the natural place to begin, was with the topic that’s most important of all – the topic coach Conolley nailed at the 2016 Fall Camp – Tribe.

This is ours: