How many times has the average adult heard this phrase? Your parents told you. Your driving instructors told you. Your teachers told you. If you are old enough to be out on your own, you have probably learned to tune this out long ago.
The pressure on anyone in any social environment is to act relaxed and "in control." At ease, I suppose. This means that you don't look at everyone in trepidation. Every newcomer is not cause for alarm. You don't have to tremble in fear going to new places. This kind of behavior would be considered somewhat paranoid. According to the Encarta™ World English Dictionary:
|par.a.noid adj||obsessively anxious about something, or unreasonably suspicious of other people and their thoughts or motives|
There are plenty of dangers in any society, but generally you don't need to be obsessively anxious. The chances of you getting in a bad situation are pretty remote (especially if you practice good operational security!). Every time you meet someone new, most people aren't unreasonably suspicious of their motivations. This is good, because that's how people get along in a society. There is almost a social force that pulls people away from paranoia. Asking someone if they are paranoid is a sign if non-compliance with social norms.
Together, that means that there is pressure to be at ease wherever you are, and that some people (most? all?) have promptly forgotten all that childhood advice about paying attention. This is the path to danger (use appropriate Yoda voice, if you like). The problem is that to make the assumption that there is no danger at all will lead to a state of complacency. It feels better to think this way. You can't deny the allure of the warm, snuggly safety blanket, where your well-being is assured. No one really wants to confront the fact that they are in danger. But no matter where you are, there is no guarantee of complete safety. A gigantic meteorite could theoretically land anywhere on the planet at any time. You could be sitting in the epicenter of the impact area right now! There is a reason, though, that you shouldn't be too worried. The chances of that happening are vastly small. You are in orders of magnitude more danger when you are behind the wheel of a car. Accidents are not so remote. The issue becomes relevant when you stop paying attention, and you no longer are able or are willing to see signs of trouble.
There is a balance that must be achieved between these two opposite perspectives. A martial artist should always be paying attention. This doesn't mean they are unreasonably suspicious, but it does mean they make the basic assumption that nothing is completely safe. This is where critical thinking comes into play. You should ask some basic questions.
- How much of a threat is this person or situation?
- Does anything indicate the person or situation may be dangerous?
- Is any action necessary to protect others or myself?
- Should I dismiss this person or situation?
You don't need to spend long hours contemplating them. There's not much to be gained by agonizing about the relative threat levels in a given situation, but it shouldn't be ignored, either. If you do it properly, you don't even need to consciously be aware that you're doing the calculation. For instance, when you walk across your driveway, you probably don't have much to fear from being run over by a car. When you walk across a parking lot in a busy area, you are probably more aware of the risk than you were in the driveway. And if you are walking across a major eight-lane highway, you are probably very aware of potential catastrophic danger. All of the dangers involve getting hit by a car, going from benign to extremely dangerous (and stupid?), but you don't need to sit down and think about it. Now, there are about seventy cars moving toward me at a relative velocity of 33 meters per second, and at a relative mass of...
In other words, you just know. It's not really any trouble to deduce the relative safety of a given area of blacktop. Why? Because this is something that is easy to pay attention to. When is the last time you were walking along and suddenly realized you were standing in the middle of a busy intersection? And even if you did, you probably wouldn't have to ask yourself whether or not it was safe. This is all because we know the inherent danger of cars, so we automatically pay attention when we're around them. On the other hand, there seems to be a reversal of this effect when some people are in a car. No matter where you stand on the issue, if you're talking on a phone in the car, you are definitely less capable of paying attention to driving the car.
A martial artist should take this a step farther (although this is a good idea for anyone!). The easiest things to miss are the little details. It's always the details that get you, and this is because we are very good at generalizing. Most of the time, you just have to generalize, because walking into a room and trying to investigate every iota of discernable knowledge is impossible. Still, there are lots of things most people don't even realize they could pay attention to. In martial arts, the instinctive reaction is to begin by being aware of how many people are in the room. How many of them could be a threat? (Note that a six-year-old kid holding a gun is a threat to a Navy SEAL, so don't just make the assumption of big muscled men.) Where are the exits? This is one of the most missed, most useful things to know. When arguing with someone, don't just cue yourself on their mannerisms, though they are important. Look at other signs. Is he clenching his fist? Does he have friends? This is monumentally important to know. Is he drunk? On drugs? Does he have a weapon? (A beer bottle is a weapon. A screwdriver is a weapon. A pencil is a weapon. A set of keys is a weapon.) Could he be hiding a weapon? Given the relative size of this individual, what is the quickest way to neutralize him? You will have to decide if you need to hurt him to protect yourself. Is he in shape? Could I outrun him? This is just a small sample of the details that you can discern by paying attention. If you got into an altercation with someone and missed the fact that he was wearing a pocketknife on his belt, you are in serious trouble.
The reason most of us don't always pay attention is because it is a lot of trouble. You have to think a little, work a little, so most of the time it just isn't worth it. The people who believe this are the ones that are most in danger. Remember that criminals like easy targets. They like surprise and intimidation. If you are aware of their presence then you have just added an extra level of protection. It's no guarantee, but it will help. And again, you don't need to be paranoid about it. There isn't danger around every corner, but the more you keep these questions in the back of your mind, the less you will have to consciously think about it. Don't fall into that mindset where you don't think the reward is worth the effort. Any martial artist can tell you about the payoff of hard work.
- Sde-Or I, Yanilov E. Krav Maga. Berkley, CA: Frog, Ltd., 2001