A lot of people talk about character in martial arts, but what does that mean? The simpler aspects of character are easy to define. Respect for your teacher, respect for your seniors, your fellow students, your art. But how are they developed? How does one manifest these qualities?
To the non-martial artist, these may seem like easy concepts, clearly visible and manifested with polite words and smiles. But this is on the surface only, and quite fragile. I don’t know anyone who was born with character, though it certainly can happen. True character is, at least in my experience, developed over many years and tested daily.
So what is character? Brian Sherry, during his presentation at Swordfest, put into words what I have been thinking about for quite some time. Character in martial arts is coming to practice no matter how hard or far away it is, and working through pain, fatigue, frustration and despair. It is practicing relentlessly on your own to perfect your technique and then coming to class and having your technique ripped apart, criticized and corrected, day after day, year after year. It is earning your next rank after months or years of grueling work, only to realize that it is only another rung in a ladder that will never, ever end, with each rung harder to climb than the one before. And yet despite all of this, you keep going, you never give up. You trust your teacher, you trust your seniors, and you trust yourself. You accept the fact that you will never be as good as you hope to be, that with every gain in skill and ability will come the realization that there is much more to learn than you ever realized before.
This is character for a martial artist. The other things, respect for teacher, seniors, fellows, these things come as a consequence of this process, and when thus developed they are not fragile. They stand the test of time, conflict and hardship. If you have never been there, never kept going and going despite the despair of failure, the constant pressure to do better, the never ending chase of the carrot on a stick that is always just out of reach, then you do not have this character. You may have earned it elsewhere, be it in military service or a grueling ordeal of another kind, but you did earn it, you did not just wake up one day and decide that you had it. Maybe you obtained it on your own, without a teacher, by pushing yourself as a teacher would, by persevering despite your own never ending criticism. I know several people like this, and their character is real, and tested. Whatever the case, if you have it, you earned it, and you should be proud.
In HEMA, this character is often hard to come by. This is not the fault of HEMA practitioners themselves, but of the nature of HEMA. There are few genuine teachers, few authorities to push you, to challenge you. The culture of HEMA encourages people to disdain authority, to seek answers in books and in themselves. This is a shame. Character is not found in books, fancy words, ideals or period clothing.
The good thing is, it is never too late. It was not too late for me, and though my journey is long, I have begun it. And it is never too late for you. No matter how high up the ladder you are, if it is a ladder of your own making then get off. Go find another ladder and start climbing it only to have someone knock you off and make you fight for every rung. The reward will soon become self evident.