Monday, October 31, 2016

REVIEW: Greg Jahiel - "Smile at Strangers" by Susan Schorn

"Smile at Strangers: And Other Lessons In The Art Of Living Fearlessly," by Susan Schorn
Book Review by Greg Jahiel

The landscape of Martial Arts studies is littered with autobiographies chronicling the background, training, evolution, and adventures of martial arts practitioners. Most of these books are interesting and at least somewhat insightful, but rarely do they motivate the reader to more closely examine his or her own assumptions and approaches to martial arts training. Written in a relaxed and entertaining style, Susan Schorn’s book, “Smile at Strangers: And Other Lessons In The Art Of Living Fearlessly” is a book that does just that.

Susan Schorn came to the martial arts as an adult who, due to both her own personality and the childhood murder of a good friend’s mother, was “dogged by fear and hamstrung by the anger that accompanied it.” After an initial foray into a Korean martial art, she began training at a run-down all-women’s Kyokushin Karate school in Austin, Texas, called Sun Dragon. Sensei Suzanne, Sun Dragon’s founder and head instructor, practiced what the author termed an “empowerment approach” to training – meaning that besides the intense full-contact sparring that Kyokushin was known for, Sensei Suzanne also helped students become more aware of the daily choices they made and the how these choices played out in terms of safety, boundaries, interpersonal relationships, and ultimately their own happiness. By making them more aware of the options they had, students were empowered to make better choices – from the mundane ones they tended not to think about at all, to the life threatening ones we hope no one ever has to make.

I’ve always been pretty egalitarian in my approach to training, and never thought much about the benefits a woman might gain from training exclusively with other women. But as Susan Schorn points out, for some women (especially women who don’t feel physically confident), the absence of men can make training much less stressful and more productive. Furthermore, many of the scenarios that women find themselves in (getting groped on the bus, being catcalled on the street, etc), are ones with which most men (certainly most self-defense instructors I’ve met) have no real firsthand experience. In this regard, training with other women to handle these types of scenarios (along with others that are scaled up to include more overtly threatening and violent ones) makes perfect sense.

There are three main narrative strands in this book: Susan Schorn’s growth as a martial artist; the role her training had on her life outside of the dojo; and Sun Dragon’s slow transformation from a tattered Kyokushin gym run by Sensei Suzanne into a Seido Karate school run by her students (with Sensei Suzanne’s blessing). These threads are woven together in a series of entertaining chapters with titles such as “Fall down seven times, get up eight;” “You’re doing it all wrong… and that’s perfect;” and “Believe it or not, you are more than equal to the challenges you face.” As one would expect from titles like these, Susan Schorn is able to cull from her experiences life lessons which apply to us all.

This is a book I would recommend to any woman who has perhaps thought of training but isn’t sure if the martial arts are for her. I would also recommend it to anyone curious to learn more about Sensei Suzanne’s empowerment approach to the martial arts, and author Susan Schorn’s own journey conquering her fears and, in her own words, learning to smile at strangers.

~Greg Jahiel

NOTES:  My deepest gratitude for this review from my friend, Greg Jahiel! Please check out Greg's other review: REVIEW: Greg Jahiel - "When Buddhists Attack" by Jeffrey K. Mann.

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