The Arctic, Jiu-Jitsu, and Perspective

What do backpacking in the Alaskan Arctic and jiu-jitsu have in common? They both can serve as a lesson on proper perspective, but only if you want them to.

It’s a fact of life that things that are worth doing are often not going to be easy. Sometimes during those endeavors, you’ll encounter situations where everything looks like it’s going downhill. One lesson I learned in the arctic gets applied all the time to my jiu-jitsu, as well as life in general.

A friend of mine and I were backpacking in the Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska. Incidentally, he is the first person that made me tap to jiu-jitsu, despite outweighing him by 50 pounds. Apparently it was a sign of lessons to come.

We were just finishing up our backpacking route into the remote native village of Anaktuvuk Pass after a long and fast hike in. All during our hike in, we saw numerous signs of bear and wolf tracks headed towards the town. We surmised that the animals were probably after garbage, and we made a mental note to be careful about where we made camp.

Both of us were exhausted by the end of the day, and we had to find a camp site that we didn’t have a clear idea of where it was. All we knew was that it was away from the town and located somewhere on the other side of the mile long gravel airstrip. We had jokingly referred to our destination as “The Ass-Pit”, because from the descriptions, it was clear the locals didn’t want to see us, and we would get the least desirable location to camp. We had no idea how accurate that term would be.

We resigned ourselves to another mile of hiking down the side of the airstrip and finally found a spot with a couple fire pits that appeared to be a likely spot. There was willow brush all around us, which sounds pleasant until you consider that those low willows are ideal bear territory, and you always avoid camping in those areas in the arctic if possible. They are called “grizzly mazes” for a reason.

I was tired, sore, and now convinced the locals wanted us to be eaten by bears. The ground was poor for setting up a tent, and there was trash and alcohol bottles scattered about (keeping in mind that Anaktuvuk Pass is a dry town). Periodically some of the locals would ride down in their trucks, stare at us for a couple minutes, then turn around and go back towards town. As the evening wore on, I was getting an early and unpleasant taste of the civilization I was trying to escape by hiking the barren tundra.

I ended up in an uncharacteristically bad mood, and our nickname for the campsite seemed prescient. I couldn’t imagine a worse way to spend my last night in the arctic. I sat there, munching on almond M&Ms, just wishing for the otherwise spectacular trip to be over.

My friend saw my bad mood, and started whittling down our situation. If we ignored the locals, bear territory, trash, bad ground, and long day . . . we were in the middle of the arctic, the sun was shining, the mountains were beautiful, and we just had just spent over a week of thoroughly enjoyable backpacking. I had even proofed out the utility of a experimental tent that I had built.

In that moment, my whole perspective of my situation changed. I previously had chosen to focus on the easy negative targets instead of seeing how fortunate I really was. The m&ms got twice as tasty, and my mood for the evening became bulletproof with enjoyment of my situation.

Just like my scenario in the arctic, I have found that Jiu-Jitsu will periodically test you and ask you what you choose to focus on. I have seen countless students quit for various reasons, others who decide to coast and just play with jiu-jitsu, and others who have hit frustrating walls. All of them made choices based on their own criteria.

When jiu-jitsu is going your way, it’s easy to be a fan and tell everybody about how wonderful it is. Yet how do you react when you are injured or frustrated or ready to quit? What about when school politics become an unwanted force? Like any human endeavor, there will be good and bad things that happen on your path. You certainly can’t completely control what happens during your jiu-jitsu journey. The one thing you can control is how you choose to react.

If you are training jiu-jitsu, you are in the small percentage of people who are doing it and reaping the benefits. The longer you train, the more you become a member of an even smaller percentage of people who have the right perspective and perseverance to get past the inevitable hardships. If you choose to focus on these positive aspects, and choose to have your perspective reflect how fortunate you are, your jiu-jitsu path, and your path through life will be easier and more enjoyable.

Injuries may temporarily force you out, but you may get more time to study. Brick walls of nightly defeat can spur you to focus on getting better. Inevitable politics or internal social issues become secondary to getting on the mat and improving yourself. Temptation to quit is tempered by realizing how far you’ve come and how much you’ve achieved.

How you to react to events is completely your choice, and your choice can trend towards the positive and uplifting by maintaining a good perspective that whittles away the meaningless negative aspects of what is happening to you. I do this all the time in jiu-jitsu and life, just like I had “The Ass-Pit” transformed into a beautiful valley. Perspective and choice are yours to work with. Choose your perspective wisely.

2 thoughts on “The Arctic, Jiu-Jitsu, and Perspective

  1. Interesting choice of words, “bulletproof with enjoyment”. One of the things you left out and worried me significantly were the vehicles that didn’t see us and the random gunshots throughout the night! Which direction did that come from??? Nice article and reminder of the trip as well as life choices.

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