Monday, November 07, 2016

Back to One

There's something I've written about, thresholds, and it's not quite right. Experience with violence rewires you. The person who has survived a violent encounter is not the same person as they were before the violent encounter. Five encounters later, there's another definite change. Then another and another and another. Six discrete stages is as far as I know.

It tracks for other things and it generally tracks for other people. One of the issues with writing from personal experience is that you can't really know whether something you notice is idiosyncratic to you. One stupid example-- I tend to remember high-stress incidents in mirror image. I'd go over a force report and everything in there was exactly what happened, except everything I wrote that I did with my right side, e.g. "I then knelt on the side of XXXXX's head with my right knee to immobilize him against the ground." I'd actually done with my left knee.

How idiosyncratic is that? Without the combination of force incidents + report writing + report review I wouldn't even know. Same with the idea of experience thresholds rewiring your brain. Internal change is usually imperceptible unless you have a mechanism to bring it out. Or a combination of alertness and luck.

That's a digression.

Kathy Jackson over at The Cornered Cat is one of my "Honorable enemies." She's a good friend who has no hesitation in telling me when she thinks I'm wrong.

One of my threshold observations was that people who has prevailed in a single violent encounter were consistently the worst teachers. These were the ones that felt there was only one right answer, whether it was rage or fitness or speed or power or... the one thing that had worked was the only thing that could work. And, because all thinking humans know that's not true, these instructors had a constant cognitive dissonance they needed to resolve. As a result, the students they attracted were not students at all, but just pawns in their self-therapy.

Kathy pointed out two instructors who were superb, but each had one violent encounter. Which made me dig a little deeper.  She was right. But those two instructors had not prevailed by any stretch of the imagination. They had survived on luck or the intervention of others.

One of the other things that rewires your brain is to be absolutely sure that you will die in the next few minutes while being absolutely sure that there is nothing you can do to change the equation. Situations of complete helplessness exist, and I think almost everything we do as societies and individuals is geared, at least in part, to deny this truth.

These two instructors had hit that rock-bottom of helplessness and were allowed to live. And it has driven them to become the best they can be. They have the constant bullshit filter of their own experience and a drive to push their limits. They're extraordinary instructors.

Recently, Kathy pointed out another pattern. The experienced, effective, skilled operator who has that feeling of total helplessness late in their career.

(remind me to write later about how much fear and cognitive dissonance there is at the heart of this)

Simple truth is that no matter how alert, fit, skilled, experienced, equipped... name any combination you want... there is something out there that can crush you like a bug on a windshield. The incidents are rare, so most will never face them. And if you do face them and die, which is common, you don't have to work out the emotional issues afterwards. But when you hit complete helplessness and live, that can really mess you up.

We train to be harder to kill. That's cool. It's cool right until we become invested in the identity. When we start to believe that we can handle anything. Confidence is fine, but when it is not paired with humility and the sure and certain knowledge that the world is bigger than you and can bring you down, it creates a vulnerability.

So the tough guy (and I want to write swaggering, but not always) who has convinced himself he is the best of the best gets rolled. Nothing he had was enough. Maybe he wakes up in the hospital fully aware that the only reason he's not in the morgue is pure dumb luck, or the whim of violent strangers.

The pattern? Generally he goes out on one more mission to prove he can still "get back on the horse" and then he transfers from operations into teaching. He fantasizes extensively about what might have worked in that one encounter and when he thinks he has something that might have worked, he insists it would have worked. And he teaches that, obsessively. Not the hundreds of other things that did work in real life before the one incident. The fantasy that makes him feel less vulnerable.

Like the instructor with only one encounter, it's not really teaching. It's self-guided therapy. And the students are just pawns in that therapy.


Charles James said...
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Rory said...

Charles, for whatever reason, your comment came through on my inbox, but I see that you've deleted it here. I thought it was good question, but I also assumed you deleted it for a reason. If you don't mind, I'll give a brief answer. If that's a bad idea, let me know and I'll delete all of this.

One question I get frequently is whether someone can be a legitimate SD instructor without experience. The answer is absolutely. Some of my best instructors have never fired a shot in fear or anger and have never gone hands-on with a meth freak. But they were able to improve my draw, my power, my body mechanics. they created environments where it was safe to make mistakes and learn from them. They couldn't tell me what it would be like emotionally, aftermath, some of that stuff... but I can't either because it's different for everybody. I can hint, advise. The only time this part is a problem is if the 0 experience instructor has read some stuff and taken it as absolute truth. But that goes for anybody. As long as you are aware of what you don't know, and let your students know, things should be fine.

Conversely, some of the least effective instructors are the ones who have had enough experience that they've reached unconscious competence. It's hard to pass on things that you do unconsciously. That's one of the reasons why so many great competitors, in anything, tend to make such poor teachers.

Obviously a lot more to unpack here, but that's the (my) short answer.

Unknown said...

Interesting thought. I'd never really considered it before this but in reflection, I would wholeheartedly agree with you. I spent a couple years as a solo bartender (read bouncing was also my problem) in a rough bar. Some manner of violence was not uncommon for me. The saving grace is none of those people were particularly skilled. Had I needed to deal with a skilled MMA fighter or judoku, I'd probably have been hosed. Those instances plus ab in violent encounter, have sent me on a path of acquiring more and more skills focused around self defense.

Erik Kondo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Erik Kondo said...

I think the understandng of how life experience literally rewires your brain is an important issue that many experienced people seem to forget. That once you have been changed by experience, you usually can't go back feeling what it felt like as a beginner.

But if you are clever about it, you can go back in time in certain experimental ways. For example, if you are an skilled skateboarder/snowboarder/surfer, you usually stand either regular or goofy (left or right foot forward). When you switch it, you literally go back to a time of less skill and experience. You are no longer the same person.

Other examples would be doing techniques with your "weak" side. Sighting with you non-dominate eye. All of these activities have the effect of eliminating some of your "experience" and allow you to remember what it felt like when you were less experienced.

The point of this type of exercise for instructors is to develop more empathy for those with less experience than you so you can teach them better.

Erik Kondo said...

Expanding a little on my previous comment.

Rory said in his recent comment "Conversely, some of the least effective instructors are the ones who have had enough experience that they've reached unconscious competence. It's hard to pass on things that you do unconsciously. That's one of the reasons why so many great competitors, in anything, tend to make such poor teachers."

The reason for doing the switching exercise I talked about in my comment above is as follows:

When you switch from left to right foot forward, left to right eye, left to right hand, or vice-versa, you lose a portion of the unconscious competence that Rory speaks of. You are now forced to think about what you are doing which is what a less experience person would have to do.

This also explains why few people will actually do this exercise. They don't want to "lose" their acquired skill since it has become part of their identity.

Chris said...

I'm inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt, in regard to properly shepherding their own self-interest. As opposed to, what I think they ought to want...

While the instructor with just one successful encounter under his belt, may indeed be merely "roleplaying," or engaging in self-directed therapy, we are going to far to minimize their students as unwitting pawns.

Would that be our pretense to come in and rescue them, a.k.a. our self-directed therapy? Ha ha.

Anonymous said...

The levels of thought and angles in the OG post and comments very enjoyable to read. In particular, inclination or motivating factors chosen, based on an instructors personal history, for a specific strategy/method.

Unknown said...

Honest fear shall filter my memory and guide my inner operator.

rmason said...

Dude! I love your ideas and writing. But they are super-hard to read. Could you consider upgrading to a larger, more readable theme/font? Open Sans font would be the low-hanging but still awesome fruit. Thank you for all you do.

Unknown said...

Yeah. When I was young, I was held underwater till I did the physical panic thing as I started to drown. In my twenties I was in the hospital 3 months, unable to move, in intermittent extreme pain. I've screamed, a lot.

Both of those experiences changed me, a lot. Complete helplessness.