How Does your Ego Compare to your Life’s Accomplishments?

Mike Sullenger

Over the past couple of decades, as I’ve gotten older and have begun paying more attention to my life’s accomplishments. I’ve not done this to say that I’m any better or worse than others, merely to examine how I will be remembered once the last date of my life is added; after the “dash” between my birth and death. This is not only what I’ve experienced in over five decades of martial arts studies and training, but in my military, law enforcement and teaching (both academic and martial arts) careers. Those reading this article who are in their 50’s or older may be better able to appreciate where I’m going here.

During a recent week long course I attended at the Law Enforcement Management Institute (LEMIT) for new Chiefs of Police, one of our instructors shared a poem entitled, “The Dash” by Linda Ellis. I encourage you to read it and ponder how this would play out in your own life.

Ms. Ellis points out that the dash represents how we spent our life; how we loved and lived during those years in between our birth and death dates. It asks us to consider slowing down and being less harsh or rash in our daily dealings with family and friends. And it points out that our life shouldn’t be about what we were worth (money and property) in the end.

So what does this have to do with those of us in the martial arts or any other lifelong endeavor we’ve chosen? Clearly anyone who has spent any time training and competing in karate will immediately appreciate the number of competitors whose ego preceded them into the room. They saw themselves as larger than life; better than anyone else there. The purpose for them competing nearly every month at some tournament around the country was to continually challenge this hypothesis, which also fueled their growing ego. In my experience many of these people maintained this attitude into later years when they were clearly no longer able to keep up with the youngsters.

At some point down the road we begin to realize we’ve gotten older. We’re not as fast or as strong as we once were. We are no longer able to compete with the younger competitors rising in the ranks. For some this resulted in the “mid-life” crisis. They begin doing things they feel will help them recapture their youth. Other more pragmatic folk merely accepted the fact that it is the natural part of the life cycle and adjusted.

A few years ago I began to realize the impact I was having on the lives of those I was teaching, both in the dojo, the academic classroom and the police cadets in the local academy. This new awareness was the result of feedback from former students, and in some cases their parents. It also came in the explanation when I received a nomination to a hall of fame in the Spring of 2008. With this new awakening I wrote an article entitled, “The Importance of Mentoring.” Clearly one must, at some point in their life, become aware of the impact they have had and continue to have on others. Has it been a positive or negative one? Only the recipients can answer that question. If you are blessed enough to have received feedback then you know the answer. If not, are you aware of how you have impacted the lives of others? I’ve come to grips with the fact I can’t keep up with the younger generations. Without a doubt there are those who have a great deal of difficulty accepting this realization.

My goal in my latter years is to share what I’ve learned over these decades in an effort to help younger students gain from my experiences and the wisdom that has resulted from them. It is clear many people are not capable of making the transition. This is evident by their comments and attitudes. The way they conduct themselves around others as if they were still in their thirties is telling. From a martial arts stand point what does this say about the failure of their sensei to impart this knowledge to them? Anyone who has read Funakoshi’s autobiography, “Karate Do, My Way of Life,” is keenly aware of the importance of humility and leading by example.

In the end it comes down to the “dash.” How did our ego compare to our life’s accomplishments? How did we live our lives? How did we learn from our mistakes? Did the learning curve from those mistakes benefit us or not? When we are no longer among the living what will those left behind have to say about how we spent our “Dash.”

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Michael Sullenger
Michael Sullenger started his martial arts training at the age of 12 in 1960. Over the years he has studied Judo, Jujitsu, Hapkido, Shotokan, Issinhryu, Chung Do Kwan Tae Soo Do, and Tang Soo Do Mu Da Kwan. He joined Mr. Lieb's organization in 1972 and was one of the 13 original schools/instructors who assisted in founding the American Karate System. He has practiced and taught the martial arts in eight states and three European countries since February of 1967. He has been involved in law enforcement including civilian and military, city, county and state for over 40 years. His military career includes 4 years as an enlisted man during the Vietnam time frame (10/1960 to 10/1970), and as an officer for just over sixteen years (12/1976 - 6/1993) retiring as a Major. He has been teaching law enforcement officers in all of these states and countries as well over the same time frame.