On the Meaning of a Belt

A video of my impromptu speech

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

I really didn't want to be promoted. I even had a talk with my instructor a while back. I saw the stripes on my belt and told him he can slow down, I'm in no rush. I recently heard a person say they were sick of being a white belt. For me, I'm the opposite. I wanted to stay at purple.

My Belt Is Old and in Tatters...

I've had it for a long time and it's very important to me. It's about all the miles I've put on it. The time I've put on the mats is only half the story... I've been living out of the hospital for several months. My mom's pretty sick. My life right now is work, go to the hospital, spend the night there taking care of my mom, go back to work, sleep when I can, eat when I can, train when I can. The whole time I've been a purple belt, I've had someone sick. I lost my sister. I lost my father. My dog was a great emotional comfort to me during this time, then recently I lost her to cancer, as well. And now this with my mom...

Exhausted Isn't a Strong Enough Word

I really wanted to quit jiu-jitsu a couple of years ago, I didn't love it anymore. And I did... for a bit, then I came back. While being a purple belt I realized good jiu-jitsu is not just about techniques and conditioning, it's also about resilience.

After everything I've been through, if it were just about cool moves and kicking someone's ass, I'd feel like it's just a big waste of my time. For me it's also about grooming. Becoming a better person.

This New Belt Doesn't Really Mean Anything to Me

No offense to my instructor, if he thinks I deserve it, it's not for me to question. But this belt has no meaning. I'm the one who adds meaning to this belt. You add meaning to your belt every day. Your teacher just gives you an opportunity to make jiu-jitsu a meaningful part of your life.

I once read that martial arts is about yielding to something greater and it's hard for me to let go of this purple belt because it carries so much history. It's like our past, you get so used to carrying it, even if it's hurting you it's hard to let go. For me this new belt is just one more chance to start with a clean slate. There's nothing written on the ledger. For me it's a chance to be a white belt again and I need that.

The Belt Doesn't Make the Person

The person makes the belt. You make the belt. There are black belts, and then there are black belts. The black belt in life is the one who gives a black belt any meaning.

I really didn't want to come to the promotion. I have so much going on. I don't always want to come but I still somehow end up showing up. Someone told me I must really love it. Love isn't the right word. I don't do it because I love it, I do it because it's meaningful. There's a lot of things we love that we stop doing. We don't stop doing meaningful things. It's just a part of who we are. I know many of you will get that.

A martial artist used to be a person people could turn to, a pillar of strength, advice, they protected their village, and they offered up kindness. Aim for being a black belt in life. Train consistently, focus on getting better every day with your technique — be resilient — and the rest will take care of itself.

To use BJJ as an analogy for life, you never get anywhere by yourself. There are always people helping you along the way. Half the blood and sweat on your belt doesn't belong to you, it belongs to others. Set high goals, but also embrace gratitude. No one improves in a vacuum and the most powerful aspect of BJJ is community. And community is one of the most powerful things in life.

(If you enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting this site.)