Rites of passage and self-defense

This article is about self-defense, but it will only make sense when you get to the end of it. Hang in there…

Initiation rituals and “Rites of Passage” have existed in cultures throughout time. They have many purposes I disagree with, but there is one I will write about here: to mark the transition from childhood into adulthood. Once you passed this initiation, you were one of the adults of the tribe or family or whatever other social structure you came from. This typically came with some benefits but also responsibilities: you were allowed more liberty and freedom, but you also became more responsible for yourself and others.

Though there are still certain traditions today that uphold these rites of passage, they are slowly disappearing in Western societies. That is neither good nor bad per se. Societies changed tremendously over the last hundred years or so, which doesn’t make it surprising these rituals are less common now. But I believe there is still value in some of them, so I decided years ago to do something like that with my own children. My daughter turned 18 a few years ago and we did it then, my son became an adult earlier this Summer so the time had come for his turn.

Here’s what we did.

I told him I would “kidnap” him for an afternoon to have a talk and show him some stuff. The first thing I did was take him to Antwerp. I explained this would be my last talk from the typical position of a father teaching his son what he believes he needs to know.

My kids are used to this because I have spent a lot of time talking with them from early childhood. The reason was simple: I divorced my ex-wife almost 20 years ago and I knew I wouldn’t have as much time with my children as I would’ve liked. I wouldn’t always be there to teach them the things they need to know as they organically came up throughout their lives. The next best thing was to always answer all the questions they had and motivate my decisions towards them. I abhor it when somebody says, “Because I say so!” as an answer to the question of “Why?” I always explained why it was important for them to do certain things, like say “Thank you. and “Please.” Or learn to postpone rewards until after the work is done.

I’m very fortunate in that both my children are turning into wonderful young adults. I like to tell myself that my parenting had something to do with that.

All that to say that it is not uncommon for me to spend time discussing things with my children.

 

We went to a place just outside of the city where real estate is extremely expensive. We stopped in front of a huge villa and I asked if he recognized the place; he did.

This needs some explaining:

After my divorce, I was pretty much financially ruined. I had to work as much as I could to recover from that setback. That meant I often worked weekends, but I also had my kids every other weekend. I couldn’t afford a babysitter for the entire weekend, so I asked some of my clients if it was okay if my kids came along while we trained. Without exception, everybody was fine with that, for which I was extremely grateful. I then taught my kids what was expected of them: they had to behave while I was working, not trash the place obviously, be polite, and so on. In the meantime, they could watch a Disney movie on my laptop until I finished the training session. There were never any problems when they came along. It’s one of the things I am still proud of, to see them behave so exemplary.

The place we stopped in front of was the house of one of my oldest clients. He no longer lives in Belgium, but we used to train a lot, so my kids know that house quite well. I told my son that the kind of life he leads, the material things and status he acquired, it’s about as high as you can get. Then I explained how for the past 20 years, he averaged 14 to 16 hours of work every single day. Barring exceptions, all that wealth doesn’t come for free; you have to work extremely hard for it.

If that is what he wants, a career that takes him to that level, he would need to work just as hard and obviously get lucky too. And if that’s what makes him happy, then I’m okay with it. But he shouldn’t expect to get there with anything other than a full commitment.

 

Next, I took him to the red-light district.

In Antwerp, that is quite safe. There’s a small police station smack in the middle of it, and sometimes you even see tourists dropped off by the busload to walk through it. It’s not a true tourist trap like the red-light district in Amsterdam, but it’s not a horrible cesspool like some other places.

I explained this is the opposite of the life my client leads. If he is at the top of the ladder, the girls behind the windows and their clients are typically at the bottom. But they don’t deserve to be looked down upon. All it takes is a few bad decisions and some bad luck in life for somebody to end up at that level. It can happen much faster than most people believe possible. So one of his goals in life needs to be: never end up at the bottom of the ladder.

An additional lesson is to not look up too much to the rich and/or famous. They are just as human as those prostitutes and are no better or worse than them. There are good and bad people in all walks of life. Sanctifying an entire group of people is not smart as it invariably leaves you disappointed. Same thing with demonizing groups.

As we walked out of the street, we turned a corner and walked for another minute. I asked if he recognized where we were. He didn’t. I told him this was the building owned by another client. My children had only been with me there a few times when I trained the client many years ago.

I pointed out that the top and the bottom of the ladder were only a stone’s throw away from each other. The world isn’t black or white. It is all shades of grey and so is what happens in life. But the goal is to always move away from the bottom of the ladder and head towards the top. Because everybody eventually gets knocked down a few rungs, usually more than once. If you aren’t high up, you might hit the bottom if that happens.  Life at the bottom is real bad, so you need to always try to avoid going that way. When it does happen, you pick yourself up and start climbing again. It doesn’t matter how high up the ladder you get. you can go all the way or end up in the middle. That is fine, as long as you stay away from the bottom.

Next, we went to the port of Antwerp. I showed him some of the industry that is located there: some of the petrochemical plants are huge and you can see that clearly as you drive along those sites. After 15min of driving, I showed him on the GPS how far we had driven, how little of it he had actually seen and how big the port of Antwerp truly is. Then I explained the following:

If somebody throws let’s say a dirty bomb on the port of Antwerp, a week later Western Europe grinds to a halt. It is critical infrastructure not only for Belgium, but the rest of Europe. If it gets taken out, the port of Amsterdam and other industrial sites will eventually take up the slack, but that will take time. A modern economy doesn’t just replace key components in an instant. While this process would be going on, the disruption would be felt in all layers of society and most every industrial sector. You can look up the details for all that here. What’s more, the COVID19 pandemic and the following cascade of shutdowns in the economic fabric of the world has clearly demonstrated that already.

I told him that every single day, tens of thousands of people come to the port of Antwerp to work. A lot of them have jobs that are very demanding both physically and mentally. They work in harsh conditions, operate heavy machinery and handle dangerous chemicals day in and day out. Many of them also work in shifts, including night shifts, which negatively influences their social life and has a huge impact on their health. And that is only the port of Antwerp. There are so many more places and jobs that keep the critical and other infrastructure up and running. All those people are necessary to keep our modern society going. I told him to never look down on those people, nor to take them for granted. Because they keep the machinery that is behind the scenes of our modern society functioning correctly:

  • We have water, gas and electricity thanks to them.
  • We can go to the supermarket to buy food and anything else we might need, every single day.
  • Pretty much anything he owns is made in a factory or shop somewhere, where machines and components and materials are used that only exist thanks to industry I just showed him a small part of.

This is where we started (we know somebody who works there, so I could make it personal) and we drove on for a while. Zoom out and scroll around to see how many corporations have sites there.

My point was that regardless of what he might ever feel needs to change in society, attacking this infrastructure is rarely, if ever, a good idea. Because it literally means people will die. It is also not easily replaced. There is no instant alternative, unless you think going back to the quality of life of a few centuries ago is a good thing.

 

Next, we went for ice cream at Gelato Factory, which is perhaps the best ice cream place in Antwerp and even Belgium. I parked the car nearby and told him that before we got out, there were some things I needed to say:

I talked about the reasons for my divorce. The mistakes I made in my relationship with his mother, and how in the end I saw no other solution but to leave. Even though it broke my heart to leave him and his sister too. He is now old enough to understand how difficult adult relationships can get, so I gave him some advice on that front too, asking him to not repeat my errors.

I told him that he was now an adult in the eyes of the law. That new status comes with freedom but also responsibilities. He is now free to do whatever he wants and no longer has to listen to me. If he wants to drop out and go join the circus, there’s nothing I can do to stop it. Though I added the caveats that as long as he lives under my roof, certain rules still apply. But if he would prefer to take off and never see me again, I no longer have any legal power to stop him. I did express my hope that he would stay with me for a little while longer…

Then we got to the last part:

I structured my approach as a father in a very simple way: do the exact opposite of everything my own father did. Let’s just say that my childhood wasn’t all that great and my father didn’t do a good job. Doing the opposite of what I experienced with him as a parent, seemed like a good idea at the time. Overall, I think it worked out rather well.

But there is a snag: my father died when I was 18.

I don’t have anything to contrast with beyond that point. So I had to figure something out by myself and this is what I came up with:

It is difficult as a parent to let go of your children after taking care of them for so long. As he is now at an age where he can make his own way, my job has changed. If I don’t want to be one of those overprotective parents who messes up their kid, I have to adjust my role as well. I explained that from now on, I see my job more as an advisor, somebody to turn to for help, a shoulder to cry on, a coach in his corner, and basically the one person in his life that will never abandon him. But I will no longer tell him what he needs to do. I am more than willing to discuss all the options, but he is now old enough to make his own decisions. He can call me anytime, day and night, and no matter what happens he can always come to me and I will try to help as best I can.

 

To close off, I told him that there is something I hope for the future:

My father wasn’t really a good parent to his children. My grandfather wasn’t a good parent to my father and my uncle and aunts. From the little that I know, my great-grandfather was a lousy parent as well.

I want that line to end with me.

Should he decide to have children, I want him to do better than those in my family who came before him, including me.

 

What does any of this have to do with self-defense?
It’s simple:

  • If you know how the world works, it is less likely to destroy you. Because you know which traps to avoid and how to get ahead in life.
  • If you lead a good life, it is easier to walk away from potentially dangerous situations. You will find it easier to avoid conflicts that aren’t worth it, because you have a great life to get back to instead of getting into fights.
  • If you don’t get in toxic relationships, you are less likely to end up in trouble. Sometimes, that trouble can lead to the bottom of the ladder.
  • If you disrespect people because you look down upon them, they are likely to eventually use violence to express their displeasure.
  • If you kowtow to the rich and powerful, you may end up being used and then discarded. Or get yourself in trouble by doing their bidding when they ask for things you shouldn’t do.
  • I could go on for a while longer…

Self-defense is about more than handling violence. It is also about living a life that keeps you away from violence. And teaching your children what that means.

 

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