Newsletter Vol: 1, 2012 Birankai NA Website Past Issues Events

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American Spirit

By George Lyons, Bucks County Aikido

I like the symbolism in this year's summer camp poster; artwork in the form of a tsuba with an American eagle. It looks like the eagle is surrounding and protecting what could be an egg, a potential. The utility of a tsuba of course is to surround the sword and protect the hands, a three-inch shield to keep us from harm and a hope for the future. I wrote this essay thinking of not only of where Aikido is going in this country but also where we have come from. Summer Camp is on the East Coast this year. It may take an extra effort to get there. Don't miss it.

George Lyons

"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" Emma Lazarus, 1883

I keep a picture of Abraham Lincoln in my dojo office. Patti knows I admire him and found it for me at a nearby auction house. I don't know how old it is but it looks old. Even the frame looks like its traveled through time to hang on my wall.

There's something about pictures of people from back in those days. Maybe it's nobody told them to smile for the camera. Maybe it's their lives were difficult and you can see it in their eyes. Whatever it is, it looks to me like they are full of grit and I find inspiration from looking at them.

Some time ago, while watching the movie "The Sun," I noticed it depicted the Japanese emperor as having a picture of Lincoln. How strange it seemed to me that I share an admiration for Lincoln with Emperor Hirohito. Maybe he found inspiration in Lincoln's picture too. Perhaps he was interested in the spirit of the man. It might be a leap to think he was interested in "American spirit" but whatever we might say it made me think our two cultures certainly seem to have a fascination with each other. We share a history together that proves it.

Something I know about Lincoln and maybe you can see in those old photographs is that he struggled with what was then called Melancholy. Of course there wasn't much known about the affliction back then let alone there being any treatment for it. At that time the people affected were considered to be very sensitive, and also in possession of deep insight into human nature, a positive bent on the debilitating problem of depression. It came in waves for Lincoln, and when it was at its worst, his self-treatment was to visit the injured Civil War soldiers. He knew that by encouraging them he would find encouragement for himself.

The United States is a young nation with a short history but the struggles of its people are of course very old, stretching across time and borders and include famous people like Lincoln and ordinary people, too. We are a nation of immigrants, of people whose life circumstances were difficult enough that they decided to head out into the unknown for a chance to change their lives. It must have taken incredible courage to get on a boat to a foreign land. Looking at old pictures of people arriving at Ellis Island you can see something in them too.

We all know that the Founding Fathers of this country risked being hung for having a meeting to discuss a new nation. The revolutionary soldier fought and died for the freedoms it promised. The Civil War soldier fought brother and sister in a war that almost tore us apart. Americans have always been willing to push the limits to see what's possible for us individually and collectively as a people.

During WW II, American ingenuity coupled with a strong work ethic and willingness to pull together resulted in productivity the world had never seen. The famous Willow Run Bomber plant built "A Bomber an Hour" and was a deciding factor in the war. The ideas used there are now a part of a business model called "Lean Management", that is studied and used all over the world (ironically the Americans temporarily lost sight of the value of this management style while the Japanese were the first to adopt it).

Time changes things so quickly. I study an art from a country my father's generation was at war with. A perennial truth is we all have our wars to fight. Some are fought globally, some privately. We have a tradition in this country of rising up to them. We have a tradition of facing our fears and stepping out into life to fully live it or die trying. Life will always have its struggles no matter what era or country we live in. I started this article wanting to point out an American spirit I'm proud to be a descendent of, and how through Aikido I'm looking for it in my students. Now what I want to say is this; forget about ideas of "now" and "then" ...of "ours" or "theirs" ...of "us" and "them." I propose the study of Aikido puts us in touch with the grit and forbearance of all people, that its study gives polish to "spirit," be it American, Japanese or any other.

You might think the Japanese custom of bowing to the kamiza is about owing something to our ancestors. It's more than having gotten something from them; we are them. We have only not to forget it.

Chiba Sensei has brought up some fine teachers in this country. If you want to change your life, if you want to find the grit in your belly to live fully, go find one; wait at the gate, bang on the door until it is opened to you; manage the complications of daily life but don't let them distract you from your mission; let quiet persistence be the core of your character. And when you make it to the other shore, do all you can to see the lamp keeps burning for the next generation - of us.

George Lyons is chief instructor at Bucks County Aikido in Pennsylvania.