After our cohort’s first training seminar I was sick. It wasn’t anything serious, but nevertheless I decided that once I got back to Lençóis I would take it easy for a little while.
I have been taking jiu jitsu classes for about a month now. I just bought a jiu jitsu kimono from Salvador before the training seminar, so decided that I should go in person to my next class to both tell my instructor that I was sick and get his approval on the kimono I bought. Little did I know that he would tell me jiu jitsu was a “remedy for sickness” and that I needed to get ready to train. I was so taken by surprise that I didn’t even try and protest. A part of me was disappointed in myself for thinking that being a little sick would get me out of participating in this class, especially since I went to a school where (at least amongst the people I knew) people wouldn’t miss a day of school unless they couldn’t get out of bed. But at the same time I thought it was a reasonable request. After all, I was taking time away from jiu jitsu for the sake of being at my best when I started to train again.
So I ended up taking part in a class that I didn’t expect to. About halfway through this class, we all stood in a line as if we were ending the class. Typically before the end of class, the instructor reviews what we’ve gone over and how we did collectively. But this time was different. Not only was it not the end of class, but he also started to give us a small speech. I can’t say that I understood everything he was saying (as I was both tired and sick), but the little that I did understand (or thought I understood) highlighted something very important to me.
My instructor began to talk about a small jiu jitsu exhibition he went to in Salvador the week I was away. As I said before, I didn’t catch everything that he said, but the fragment that stood out to me the most was on the different levels of belts. He told us that some people were more concerned with the color of the belt than the skill of the person wearing the belt. This statement really spoke to me because it put into words something that I’ve strongly believed for a long time, but never had the strength to really stick by.
Like most people, I always want to do the best I can. What I struggle with is defining what my best is. Because of this, I have the tendency of using other people or things as a standard for whether or not I am doing as well as I could be. But what I’ve realized and what I think my instructor was saying is that focusing on a standard distracts from what’s actually there. In the case of jiu jitsu, people use the color of a belt as a distraction from the actual skill of the person wearing it. This idea has shown up in many facets of my life, but the one most pertinent to my experience here is my Portuguese ability.
I often feel that my Portuguese is compared to that of the other Fellows around me. In part it’s because I find myself making the comparison, but it also stems from the fact that when a native Brazilian knows more than one of us, they almost always make and vocalize a comparison of our Portuguese levels. And it has hurt me a little to hear people being praised heavily for their Portuguese ability and being explicitly told that they speak better than I do. But after having this realization, I understand that this standard being imposed on my Portuguese ability discounts how far I have come in my ability to speak. Just a couple of months ago, I struggled with remembering things like the different colors and the names of fruits. Now I can hold a pretty good conversation with a small group of people. Although I recognize I still have a ways to go, I am happy with where I am in my Portuguese and realize that as long as I continue to practice, my ability to speak will continue to grow.
Though I’ve mentioned relatively specific instances and examples, I think that the danger of comparisons is a concept accessible to all. I don’t know if there is a way to avoid comparisons altogether, but I think it’s important to realize that you are ultimately the judge of whether or not you are where you need to be.