So I finally got around to watching the movie Fight Club, starring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. For years, various friends in the Bujinkan had asked if I had seen it, but for some reason, I never had. Perhaps it was because the way the film was advertised made the movie (falsely, I might add) seem as if it was about a group of guys who got together and beat each other up for fun. I just wasn’t that interested in the film that was sold in the commercials.
I did find myself with some extra time the other day and so I decided to watch Fight Club so I could see what everyone was raving about. Having now seen the film, I must say that I enjoyed it. I understand why the film is considered an important film in the history of film and why there is so much interesting trivia floating around the internet about the film. Brad Pitt really was awesome as Tyler Durden and Edward Norton did an admirable job as the Narrator.
But my gut instinct that initially drew me away from the movie over the years was never really put to rest. Sure, the movie was not as advertised and was much more complex than the advertisements let on. But what I learned about the film in watching it did not change my broad apathy toward it.
At its heart, Fight Club is about people living life without regret—acting as they want to act, doing as they want to do. It is a movie about manning up and doing what should be done. It is about truly living. Or so it purports.
This issue recently became a point of conversation in the dojo. A friend of mine had done something that his gut told him was the right thing to do at a given moment in time, but he was worried what his friends would think about the action. That’s so unlike him, onlookers said.
When I shared the story in the dojo—both the action and the context of the decision—my students understood why my friend did what he did. To onlookers unfamiliar with the context in which the decision to act was made, the action certainly did throw them off. And their reaction of consternation was understandable; most likely the reaction of a jury would be similar. But for those who see the world through Budo eyes, a reaction of understanding probably would be more likely….
As we talked through the incident, I mentioned that Budo sometimes forces us to choose between gut and socialization (i.e., stuff that people say you shouldn’t do). It is amazing how much socialization affects our actions. Recent work on the causes of the Great Recession attributes the market environment that led to the crash to a lack of actioned ethics. People unwilling to speak up when they saw something wrong—often due to socialization in their organization that painted the activity as acceptable—made ethical action anathema. People who knew deep down that what they were seeing in their firms or in their industry was wrong did nothing and dismissed the situation as “not my problem.” The problem with such dismissive attitude is that when everything eventually does go to hell, it becomes everyone’s problem and real people get hurt.
The world has suffered calamitous damage that will affect an entire generation of human beings as a result of people not being willing to act on their gut instinct in the face of wrongdoing. In country after country, there have been mass demonstrations, physical confrontations with police and often violence borne out of frustration or the state’s attempt to suppress that frustration. Large portions of national populations have been thrown into poverty, erosion of personal identity, and delayed retirements. Sadly, those who failed to act but were aware of the problem and had the capacity to act to mitigate the problem can easily wipe away any responsibility for not acting by appealing to socialization (e.g., No one else thought it was wrong.)
In an altercation, you must take away the bad guy’s desire to hurt you and those with you. Occasionally, that means acting in advance of his attack, which socialization tells us is a no-no. Taking someone’s balance (kuzushi) is both physical and psychological; that is why turning on in a fight situation can be so powerful. When you escalate a situation and turn on, the other guy will trust his own gut in discerning whether or not to press his luck with you. Intriguingly, the situation often will de-escalate itself merely because you escalated it by turning on, indicating that you were present in the moment, both physically and psychologically. Bad guys are generally lazy and are looking for an easy target, not one that is going to fight back with the intensity and skills of a honey badger.
It is a strange phenomenon, to be sure, but one that requires you to trust what you know and be cognizant of what you do not. Combining that knowledge with psychological and physical kuzushi-taking ability can make you a powerful force in the world.
Taking an action based on gut is not an easy one, however. In addition to the possibility of physical damage, action based on gut often comes with social damage, as the action-taker violates the expectations of those around him or her. But as budoka, we must be willing to do so. We must be willing to set aside socialization for gut sometimes, or bad things happen to good people.
And this brings me back to Fight Club. Given that the film revolves around individuals stepping away from socialization and following their gut, someone in the dojo mentioned it as a potential source of insight on the gut vs. socialization debate. Having seen the film, now, I must respectfully disagree.
If people are really looking for potential insight on the issue in film, there is no better source out there than Gran Torino, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. Now that is a real movie with complex human characters struggling with life and death, and what it means to follow one’s gut.
The movie revolves around a grisly veteran of the Korean War who harbors deep resentment toward Asian people. At one point, the veteran comes to the assistance of his neighbor, a young Hmong man, and is slowly drawn into contact with people in the Hmong community. At the same time as the veteran is referring to the Hmong in the most vile, racist terms, he is growing fond of his neighbors and the offerings of the community. It is a wonderful film that shows how socialization fights with gut in the pursuit of truth. And it is a beautiful story of Budo—the small and large acts of gut that make the world a better place.
Please watch both Fight Club and Gran Torino and consider their similarities and differences. Both contain important lessons about Budo, one definitely more than the other, in my opinion.