A system for hard times

An odd thing happened the other day. Two different systema instructors sent me messages on Facebook from different ends of the Earth. Maybe that doesn’t sound odd, but one has never before sent me a direct message, while I haven’t been in touch with the other for a long time – many months at least. And yet, they sent me messages within three minutes of each other. Neither had anything to say that explained a message out of the blue; neither – apparently – knew about the other’s message. What was that all about? Most perplexing. Nevertheless, it suggested to me that I ought to post an update, it being a while since I wrote anything. Summary: I’ve been going through a difficult time personally, which has none the less provided some useful insights.

Almost a decade ago, my mother began to show signs of dementia, which turned out to be Alzheimer’s Disease. Her condition has deteriorated badly since then, and my father had to take on the burden of making sure she was well cared for; a burden which completely took over his life, and which grew ever heavier. Unfortunately, it eventually grew too heavy. He was rushed into hospital at the end of last year, and passed away just before spring began this year. Since I’m in China, my brother had to do most of the heavy lifting during this period, and made sure that our mother was promptly moved to a care home where she is receiving the best possible care.

For most of this last decade, Dad was effectively stuck in his home; he refused to leave Mum alone. I moved back to be with them, living in the family home and helping with Mum’s care – and trying to keep Dad afloat as well. When I had to leave to take up a new job in Russia, after work-related problems at my then employer became intolerable, I continued to Skype Dad every week; once a week at first, then – as he struggled more and more to cope – three or four times a week. It’s hard work to be a counsellor, particularly from the other side of the world, and particularly when you have no-one to unburden yourself to in turn. My emotional energy was entirely consumed by supporting Dad; for the last few years, I have effectively had to shut down my own personal life, and my own health has taken a beating. For much of the last few years, my only objective for any given day was to get through it, to just get through the day without breaking. I didn’t always succeed.

With Dad gone, and Mum safe, I have room to breath, and to take stock.

I don’t want to try to squeeze this family tragedy into a neat systema lessons-learned homily. Even so: this was a tragedy, and there are aspects to it which contain valuable insights – and which reinforce through bitter personal experience concepts I’ve been discussing here since I started this blog.

In hard times, you don’t get through alone.

We had a lot of help from the taxpayer-funded social services of Wales; help which was absolutely crucial. Many people don’t have that kind of assistance available. I have an American colleague here in China, for example, whose own parents were in a similar situation; under the US system, were it not for his father’s military service, and hence access to VA services, my colleague and all of his siblings would have already been bankrupted by their parents’ healthcare costs. Family resources won’t get most people through this kind of crisis. However, even in the UK, austerity policies mean that our national safety net is fraying rapidly; it’s not something that people can continue to depend on.

We had help from all kinds of people. In our small town, my parents were well-known, and widely liked and respected. They knew almost everyone, and that was a huge help. From neighbours looking out for them, to people doing shopping runs, offering lifts, a network was there. Offers of help sometimes came from the most unlikely people, and many people gave far more assistance than we had any right to expect or hope for. Many people, though, don’t live in tightly-knit communities, and won’t have this kind of network.

The opposite was also true. People we might have looked to for help, weren’t there. Under pressure, when the time of crisis arrived, they weren’t there; they decided it was too much for them, and they had to concentrate on their own problems. It’s not something I can blame them for. But, it did in some cases feel like betrayal. If they had been all we’d had, if there had been no-one else to turn to, we would have been in trouble.

Maintaining physical and mental health through crisis is also critical. In my case, my physical health has deteriorated badly, and I’ve had a number of serious bouts of depression and intense stress.I’ve come through it because I was able to draw on my knowledge of meditation and qigong, from my background in yiquan. I’ve learned along the way that very similar techniques are built in to systema, with Konstantin Komarov’s manual being a very useful resource. In addition, in both Wales and here in China, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had people willing to fight my case when I started to crack. Not everyone will be so lucky.

I don’t want to repeat what I’ve written before, but now I’m speaking from bitter personal experience. The crisis my family and I faced was overwhelming: the kind of crisis that breaks families and individuals, that chews you up and leaves you with nothing. It’s the kind of crisis that Russians faced in the 90s, and the people in the West are going to be facing in ever-greater numbers in the years to come.

It’s the kind of crisis that is a far greater threat to the lives and wellbeing of most of us than any physical threat. It’s a kind of threat that cannot be addressed by physical means – although, as societies start to struggle with crises in health and finance, the threat of violence will rise.

This is what’s brought me to the Cossack form of systema, and why I feel even more strongly than ever that it’s the best of the many variants. It addresses the threat of violence, as they all do, and of physical health, as most do, and of stress management, as some do. More, it addresses well-being and self-worth via music and song; an insouciance and letting tomorrow’s problems wait for tomorrow by dance. It builds friendships and a support basis like few other martial arts, or systema flavours, do: I can think of a number of marriages between people who met at events Andrey organised, and how often does that happen in most martial arts schools?

So, for me, it seems like the storm has passed; I’m battered and bloody, but still standing – and stronger for the experience. My immediate task is to get well again – for which I’ll be using the tools of Cossack systema, alongside those of yiquan (and, of course, they overlap so much).

I have big plans for next year, when I intend to re-enter the world of cossack systema in a much more structured way. Things are already being set in motion: expect this blog to be a lot busier.

Image credit: No man left behind by user Cobra islander on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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