Schwach: How a Crying Kitten Can Teach Us the Importance of Softness.

I’ve been thinking a lot this week on ebb and flow. On force and direction. On when to push, when to pull, and when to Remain. Without getting too much into the story, I recently rescued a kitten from a storm drain. How she got there is a matter of pure speculation. However, what I found once I removed the cover was a tiny terrified kitten hiding well out of arm’s reach.

She was way back in the pipe. Impossible to reach.

There was all manner of hullabaloo over the course of this story involving several characters attempting to extract her, all while shining bright flashlights and making plenty of noise. The fire department even showed up (who I did not call) and were, to put it lightly, “unhelpful.” Once those who had gathered about the scene left, the kitten was able to be coaxed out with treats. Using red light for illumination, I suck over to the edge of the drain, reached down, picked her up, handed her off, and got her to safety. Her name is Aspen and she is unbearably cute.

So what does this teach us about fighting?

Liechtenauer teaches us that all fighting is encapsulated into Five Words: Vor (“Before”; initiating), Indes (Difficult to translate, but means some combination of “within”; “in the moment”; “during”), Nach (“After”; as a result of), Schwach (weak), and Sterck (strong). Each word fills the others with itself and each word is filled with the others. So what does a kitten in a sewage pipe have to do with fighting? This is a lesson in Schwach.

What is schwach?

In a word, Schwach means “weak.” Yet, it means so much more. Schwach is the yin of German martial arts. It is the “receiving hand,” the force that yields to power to its user’s advantage. Schwach is the how water takes the shape of its container. It molds to circumstances. It diverts and redirects and waits for the right moment to become Sterck.

Schwach is a boxer, endlessly bobbing and weaving to evade their opponent’s punches. It is a wrestler responding to a push with a pull and throwing their opponent. It is a Wing Chun practitioner using “sticky hands,” not allowing their opponent to withdraw or strike in.

And yet it’s more than that. Schwach is carpenter cutting straight to keep their saw from binding. It is momentarily conceding to an opponent’s argument so that one can return with a better argument. It is a hunter laying snares. It is the providence of resources rather than detainment and prosecution for petty theft. Schwach is letting the kitten come to you.

Why is this important?

All fighting cannot be an unrelenting attack. To drive forward endlessly and completely along a single vector is to leave oneself vulnerable. You get thrown. Your saw binds and kicks. Your prosecution becomes persecution. The kitten remains terrified and out of reach.

Softness is a part of life and it’s an important piece of the infinite puzzle that we are always solving in martial arts. And for some of us it’s a difficult thing to wrap our heads around. How do you beat your opponent or acquire the things you desire without being Sterck? Without driving forth? Is it not enough to strike first, strike fast, strike last? Well, no.

“When strength goes against strength, then the stronger always wins, but Liechtenauer fences according to the true and correct art, and a weak man wins more surely with his art and cunning than a strong man with his strength. Otherwise, what is the use of art”

-Hanko Dobringer; 3227a, 22v. Translation by Michael Chidester

How does this apply to this story?

We needed Sterck in the beginning. The drain cover was an obstacle that could not be removed any way other than making it move by force. Same goes for the smaller second cover. Yet at this point, no amount of strength could have allowed the operation to continue. More than that, all presence needed to withdraw. This meant no loud noises and no bright lights. By placing treats, she could be coaxed out, but not if the risk seemed greater than the reward. This is Schwach. It is not a purely passive state in which one becomes complacent. It’s one that receives. To be Schwach is to remain in control of the fight.

The drain cover, removed. This was the time for Sterck.

Following this, the only thing that remained to do was to reach out and grab her. Having moved the fight in my favor with Schwach, it was time to once again be Sterck. In one action, I reached down to the mouth of the pipe, got my fingers around her body, and extracted her, handing her off to my roommate who was waiting with a towel with which to receive her.

Lessons to take away

Big loud men with big bright lights are a poor solution to most problems. To come in with all your bluster without knowing how to yield and withdraw to gain advantage. is to fail to be a good fencer. To remain passive and purely defensive is to do the same. It is imperative that we understand softness and work it into our training. It’s important to analyze our current training and identify Schwach actions for what they are and to undestand them better.

Martial arts reflect life just as life reflects martial arts. As above, so below. To understand the when and why of Schwach as well as Sterck is to live a more pruposeful life: one driven by sound virtues.

“Be water, my friends.”

Immediately post-extraction. We’ve named her Aspen.
In celtic folklore, one need a crown made from aspen leaves
to travel to and return safely from the underworld.

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