Do you remember learning to ride a bike? Chances are you were of a certain age, five or six (possibly younger) and had an adult (parent) helping you get started. I have a clear memory of my dad getting me started, and as we began rolling down the little dead-end street in Warwick, Rhode Island, I said over my shoulder, “OK, don’t let me go yet!” It was then I realized that he was many yards behind me already. He was grinning at me from a distance that meant, of course, that he was not guiding or balancing me and that I was indeed already doing it by myself. I immediately crashed in a kind of befuddled panic. I’d like to think that’s the most common first bike ride without the training wheels, but it’s entirely possible some kids—equipped with better self-confidence—become wizard-like bicycle masters right there. I don’t know. I don’t remember becoming proficient at bicycling, but it was soon my main mode of transport up and down all the little streets of the plat we lived in.
I bring up this little example of parenting and encouragement of a novice, to make a point about self-confidence and mental health, and the sorts of things that undermine it. Imagine the parent who never lets go of the bicycle. The one who, unlike my dad, agrees to always balance the bike and run alongside it to keep it upright so that no crash can ever happen. It seems sweet in a way, right? It seems like a natural response to the troubles and mayhem of a dangerous world, always more dangerous, always more mayhem to worry about. It is always tempting to want to shield loved ones from harm, but the truth is growth requires some risk, and the job of a parent is to make a child self-dependent. You are supposed to help a novice acquire the necessary skills to life so that they don’t need to rely on the guiding hand of parental balance (or training wheels).
I teach martial arts for part of my living. I’ve been doing martial arts since I was a child, and have been lucky to have had many terrific experiences training. I often say it’s for everyone and you’re missing out if you haven’t tried it. There is a caveat however. There are bad teachers out there. These aren’t just the teachers who don’t really know their stuff, those do exist, but the ones I’m thinking of are the ones who place themselves in positions of aggrandizement and encourage their students not to grow and develop and become self-dependent, but instead to rely always on the master. This master-disciple relationship is common in our cultural mythos. We’re nearly all raised with religious examples of messiahs who are devoted to by disciples, and so this relationship appears natural to us. But I contend it is not. The job of a teacher is not attracting devoted followers but in standing the student on their own two feet and creating in them the courage and skill to face whatever adversity they will encounter on their own. The great Lao Tsu was utterly right when he said the worst leader is the one who is loved by the people, and the best leader is the one who creates in people the sense that they achieved on their own. Of course, we are trying to make a living, but this is another discussion!
There’s a popular old poem about the person on the beach seeing the tracks in the sand and realizing that there are points in the trail where there’s only one set of tracks. The person is talking to God and asks why God abandoned him or her. The response isn’t, because you don’t need training wheels all the time child. Or because I’m trying to teach you self-reliance. The poem’s response is that God carried the person during those moments of the trail of living. Those were the very hard times. This is a terrible lesson. This lesson is putting training wheels back on the bicycle, and imagining an infallible controlling hand guiding our every move. Truly a loving parent (or god) would much rather we learn to cope without them. There really can’t be another mature answer.
Professors, gurus, senseis, or masters don’t need helpless devotees. We need people interested in the skills we offer. Ultimately the job of any good teacher is to produce a practitioner of those skills that is even better than the teacher. Again Lao Tsu said that if you don’t do this as a teacher you’ve actually failed. While the ancient teacher might be being a bit heavy-handed here, it’s 2500 year old wisdom and as such might need to be a bit blunt to reach across the chasm of time. And as I write this it looks like we’ve mostly failed to absorb that old lesson.
And so, in the wrap up here, devote to skills, not people or gods. Devote to your development and achievement, not co-dependence. And grow to become a respected and useful member of your community. Perhaps a teacher as well!