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Lessons from The Karate Kid

How washing windows can bring perspective during times of uncertainty and fear.

Photo by Jyotirmoy Gupta on Unsplash
Photo by Jyotirmoy Gupta on Unsplash

If I didn’t know better, it would have seemed like another day in April. The sun was shining, the birds were chirping, Teddy was running around the yard, chasing after squirrels and eating bark from the pile of logs we had just split and lined up along the fence. (Why do dogs love eating tree bark so much?) D was putting his engineering mind to work, analyzing the best way to cut down a ginormous tree stump in my yard while I decided to tackle the windows to begin my spring cleaning.

On any other day, I probably would have thought about my to do list before putting my house on the market in time for race track season, or planned my next visit to see my family in Germany. It had been nearly 2 years. I would have planned a side trip to one of the many countries still on my bucket list: Croatia, Morocco, South Africa, Kenya … I would have contemplated the next song I would record in my makeshift studio and day dreamed about what it would be like to finally win Scott Bradlee’s casting as the next member in Postmodern Jukebox, my favorite band.

But today was different. It had been about a month since the devastating coronavirus pandemic started ravaging the United States; a week since I was laid off (again) because (again) my job was “non-essential;” a day since I had my last full-blown meltdown and cried over the state of the world economy, the many people who were dying from COVID-19, the healthcare professionals who were putting themselves in harm’s way to save anyone they could; a few minutes since I had worried about the health of my parents and, separated by an ocean, wondered if I would ever be able to see them again.

I climbed on a ladder to scrub down the first window. 

It must have been decades since it had last been washed. If the smoke-stained walls and the retro carpeting in the kitchen, pre-remodel, were any indication, maybe even since 1963. 

After applying a layer of soap, ensuring it covered every corner and crevice, I squeegeed off the dirty water and finished it off with Windex. As I moved my hands across the window in a circular motion, one spraying, the other drying, I couldn’t help but think of the 1984 movie The Karate Kid. If you’re an 80s child like myself, you know what I’m talking about: The scene in which Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel the discipline of karate by having him wash cars.

“Wax on, wax off. Breathe in through nose, out the mouth. Wax on, wax off. Don’t forget to breathe …” I told myself as I continued from window to window.

I had almost forgotten about The Karate Kid and, I admit, I actually had to look up the premise of the movie again – it had been so long. It’s a classic underdog story about the story of a teenager, Daniel Larusso, who tries to fight back against bullies from the Cobra Kai karate dojo. After being attacked by the Cobra Kai students, Daniel is saved by his apartment building’s maintenance man, Mr. Miyagi. Taking Daniel under his wing, Mr. Miyagi teaches him the discipline of karate, so that he can face his enemies in an upcoming tournament.

I know I’m not the first to analyze The Karate Kid and write about its life lessons. And, sure, I’ve been bullied in school and have learned to fight back. But for some reason, the lessons from this movie ring all the more true today than ever before:

#1. Life can bring you to your knees. Already, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of nearly 120,000 worldwide; 17 million+ Americans are unemployed and millions more are having trouble making ends meet. The physical, emotional, and financial toll of this pandemic has rippled through every aspect of our being, destroyed lives, and tested our strength in ways that will likely take us years to truly comprehend. No matter what happens, the good and the bad, the dark and the light, are always intertwined. You cannot experience joy without sadness, and you cannot appreciate light without first spending time crawling through the shadows. It’s a fact of life and, as hard as it may be, it is one we need to accept before we can move forward.

#2. Don’t succumb to life’s trials and tribulations. Whether it’s a literal karate fight or a fight for your life, you cannot give up. You need to get back up. Our failures and downfalls are all here to teach a valuable life lesson. It’s how we deal with these life lessons that determine our level of resilience in the face of adversity. This morning, I listened to the final episode of Oprah and Deepak Choprah’s guided, 21-day meditation, Hope In Uncertain Times. “Every morning, we get to choose curiosity over cynicism,” Oprah says. And it’s true. “We get to put aside despair and find something positive in the day to hope for. When we set our intention and activate hope as a verb, we change the possibilities.” 

#3. You have everything you need to succeed. Mr. Miyagi makes Daniel complete a series of repetitive training exercises – waxing a car, sanding a floor, painting a fence. Over and over and over again, Daniel is forced to practice these exercises. How could these possibly be related to karate? What he doesn’t realize is, it’s all preparation for the ultimate fight. Life is just like that. You may not realize it but the universe has prepared you for this day, no matter what challenge you are confronted with. Don’t allow fear to overcome you. Instead, trust that God – the Universe, the Source – is benevolent and has given you all of the tools and resources you need to overcome this momentary setback. And that is exactly what it is. Within the grand scheme of things, this, right here, is just a momentary setback. You can and you will prevail.

#4. Life is about the journey, not the destination. Daniel is desperate to learn how to perform the Crane Kick, but Mr. Miyagi insists that he master the basics before moving on to the next level. Oftentimes, we want to rush our growth, but we forget that life is all about the journey, not the destination. We forget the importance of living in the present moment – of truly being with joy, pain, hope, anxiety, tranquillity, and frustration. Whatever the feeling may be, we cannot outrun it. Each feeling, each thought that enters is a teacher. We just need to welcome it with open arms and embrace the lesson it offers so we can grow, organically, in our own time.

#5. Revenge is never in your best interest. Playing a practical joke on a person who hurt you, as in The Karate Kid, is never a good idea. Yes, you may be upset at your former employer for kicking you to the curb in the midst of a pandemic, but this is the world we live in. Your boss, your colleagues, your work, do not magically bestow any value on you. Your true worth comes from within. So, focus your energies on something positive. Thank your former boss for teaching you a valuable life lesson and contributing to your personal and professional growth. Find a way to share your light and give back to the world in a time of need. Offer a free yoga session, launch a corona support group over FaceTime, start a Podcast or share your story on IGTV. Maybe even write an article about The Karate Kid. You never know where things may go from here.

#6. What matters is what’s in your heart. And in your mind, and in your soul. How do we know this? If you missed the infamous scene where Daniel asks Mr. Miyagi about his belt, expecting it to be a black one, then (spoiler alert!), I’ll tell you: Mr. Miyagi responds: “Daniel-san …” He taps his head. “Karate here.” He taps his heart. “Karate here.” Then, he points to his belt. “Karate never here. Understand?” We all have a tendency to become insecure and seek external validation from time to time. Unfortunately, titles, degrees, and experience do mean something in this physical world. But what truly matters is the light within. Have faith in yourself and trust the process. New doors will open up; it is only a matter of time until you find the right opportunity – or until the right opportunity finds you.

As I reflect on these lessons from The Karate Kid, I often think of my grandmother, Omi, a survivor of World War II. Her family lived in the ruins of a Berlin apartment complex destroyed by bombs; they scavenged for food and often spent weeks eating nothing but soup made of flour and water. As a nurse assistant, she volunteered to help victims of war, often recounting the gruesome injuries she treated, and the many patients who lost their lives. Hunger and despair reigned over her life like an inescapable dark cloud. Her girlfriends and her neighbors were routinely raped by Russian soldiers (she, thankfully, was spared). How could she have possibly survived these horrific circumstances?

The only way forward was to live day by day.  “Immer wenn Du denkst, es geht nicht mehr, kommt von irgendwo ein Lichtlein her.” That was her saying. Whenever you think there’s no more you can bear, a little light emerges from somewhere. 

The universe isn’t punishing us. It’s just redirecting us so we can continue on our journey of growth. We just have to be open and remember to take things day by day. As long as we are still alive, we have a choice: we can choose to wallow in cynicism and despair, or we can choose to embrace optimism and hope (and wash those windows with a smile).

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