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The Reluctant Martial Artist

May 10, 2016

2010 was a rough year. I teach Aikido and that year, in July a student and friend of mine, Thor Soderberg lost his life in the line of duty. Thor was a Chicago Police officer. When a member of your dojo passes under such circumstances, and especially me being a teacher of a martial art, the situation must be addressed. Simply something must be said. But, this was not simple.

Just about a week after Thor’s tragic end, I was teaching the Aikido class and my mind wondered off, which was unusual for me; I’m rarely distracted that way. It was our Sunday afternoon class. Earlier that week on the day before Thor’s funeral, my family was invited to a neighbors for a barbecue. The father practices jiu jutsu and we had become friends and sometimes worked out together. He had been an Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney, and I didn’t know this until that evening, he had gone to the Englewood police station for the States Attorney’s office on many cases. “Your friend Thor was probably ambushed” he said. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms. But the attacker was a gang member after all and it was feasible that Thor’s mandate to help give kids a positive alternative to gang activity was in direct conflict with the interests of the gangs. Certainly a possibility.

At any rate during that Sunday class many thoughts played and replayed though my mind, and, as I said before, something needed to be said.

At the end of the class, as is the tradition, I sit the Aikidoists down and we formally bow out to finish. I sat them down but stood up to speak:

When a member of the dojo dies, especially by violent acts, we must understand this in terms of our martial art. Thor was in an environment where you guard needs to be up 110% of the time. Maybe Thor had let it down a bit being as he was, in the parking lot of that police station. I don’t know and can only guess. What I do know is that practicing martial arts, Aikido, Karate, or whatever is more than just learning techniques. You have to train yourselves to a higher awareness. A higher awareness of your surroundings and more importantly yourselves. Learning the techniques of a martial art is the path you choose for that awareness.

It seems ironic to me now. Three weeks before this happened to Thor, he and his wife were visiting me and my family. Thor was playing with the boys in the back yard. Afterwards he told me that what he was doing in Englewood, working with kids was the best thing he ever did for the Chicago Police Department. Ironic that this duty killed him. His life was sacrificed while trying to make other lives better.

I want you all to remember that nobody‘s invincible: just because you have a rank, a black belt, knowledge of a martial art, or you have a gun really changes that fact. To be sure, studying Aikido can help you, but there is no guarantee. I do guarantee though that if you are caught by surprise, the odds will be against you. We study awareness; we study perception; we hone our minds and bodies to that purpose.

Thor practiced many martial arts, he was a professional trainer for the police academy. And, he informed my martial art inadvertently. Many times while on the mat, he would say “I could use that on the street!” or “That wouldn’t work at all.” At first I didn’t appreciate the commentary, however, after a while, I realized that that enhanced my knowledge and I could incorporate this new found learning into my Aikido. You can always learn from others; you can always grow; if you’ve an open mind.

That’s why we’re here; that why we do this; to prepare ourselves for the challenges we most certainly will encounter. Regardless of the nature of the challenge.

Let’s bow.”

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