In the small city where I live, there is a significant rattlesnake population. I help ensure that these snakes can co-exist with humans by volunteering to be on call to catch any rattler that's found in the suburbs, and release them back to their winter dens in the nearby Oldman River coulee canyons. Every once in a while, like today for instance, a situation arises where the snake is either injured or entangled such that I can't use my clamp-grabber, but have to get hands on. Actually, I almost look forward to these occasions, because they give me a good excuse to handle the rattlers. I have known snakes all my life, and am very comfortable with them, but knowing the danger of rattlesnake bites, I always have to resist the temptation to hold them in my hands as I would any other species. It's a strong temptation for me, not only because handling skin-to-skin gives you the feeling of having a closer connection, but also because there's a thrill and a little ego-pump involved. How many people in the world can handle venomous snakes with confidence? Not many. I don't just want to hold them, I also want to photograph and film it, so that I can show others the rare skill I have
This kind of temptation is not really that unusual in people who work with wild animals. I'm reminded of how much I enjoyed watching Steve Irwin as the Crocodile Hunter, when he was still alive. Irwin was a man I could identify strongly with, both in his love for the animals, and in his hands-on approach. But what happened to him? Ultimately, he met an early death at the tail of a stingray. In one sense, I'm sure he would have rather died this way than in a hospital as an old man. And yet, he's missing being able to be with his children as they grow up and become icons of wildlife conservation in their own right. He's left his wife a widow. Surely the thrill and the ego-boost played into his insistence on getting so physically close to dangerous creatures. Was the trade off worth it?
I was thinking about these things this morning, when it hit me that there may be a commonality between the temptations that people like Steve Irwin and I live with, and those that are guiding competitive fighters. There is danger involved in going into the ring, and facing that danger is no doubt thrilling and ego-enhancing, just like handling a venomous snake or wrestling a crocodile. That thrill can be a kind of demon, totally perverting the purpose of one's practice. In rattlesnake wrangling, yes I do have to handle snakes with my bare hands on occasion, as the need calls for it. But I don't have to give in to the temptation to touch them when the need doesn't call for it. Similarly, in the life of a martial artist, there may be occasions that arrive where one has to test his skills in actual combat, as when someone tries to assault you on the street. But you don't have to go looking for a fight, just so you can get that adrenaline rush and ego boost. Even if you know what you're doing, even though the conditions may seem controlled and the real dangers minimized, a deadly punch can be delivered as quick as a snake bite. And is it ever worth it to tempt that outcome without any call greater than ego enhancement? I don't think it is. The whole purpose of martial arts is health and survival. Throwing one's self in harms way without due cause is against that purpose, and therefore not true martial arts