Forest Park resident Jim Michael has won two world championship medals in Jiu Jitsu, but he doesn’t talk much about his victories. What he waxes eloquent about instead is what Jiu Jitsu has done for his identity.
What changed his life was a Groupon his wife at the time gave him to attend a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class, and after just one session he was hooked. He discovered that the self-defense system, as it is sometimes called, combined the intense physical challenges he had experienced in wrestling until he was in his 40s with a culture more consistent with his values and temperament.
“The difference was apparent immediately,” he recalled. “It was very respectful. There was a sense of calm in the room. The culture in Jiu Jitsu is a lot more thoughtful. No macho. No shame. No yelling at each other.”
He said his definition of what it means to be masculine benefited in many ways. Losing, for example, was not a source of shame. He said if your opponent gets you in an arm bar that could break your arm, you tap him or the mat and you say, “OK. You got me. Let’s start over.”
In his classes at the Valko Academy in Chicago, he spars with guys 10 or 20 years younger and he loses more than he wins. “I lose 10 or 11 matches a week,” he said. “When I was first beginning as a 46-year-old white belt, to have the crap kicked out of me by a 130-pound woman was very humbling.”
“And I think,” he added, “that was the best thing that could have happened to me. I was going through my own little midlife crisis and I was at a crossroad. We men tend to connect our identity with what we do, with our competency, and so to put myself in a context where I’m not going to impress anybody with my performance was eye opening.
“I realized I could not connect my worth to a finished product. I had to connect it with my willingness to get up in the morning and go do it, to enjoy the process, and to enjoy the connections and relationships.”
What he experiences at the academy three times a week, he said, is not very “American.”
“Our culture,” he said, “does a terrible job of preparing young men to become men and of preparing men to become old men. We have lost a sense of healthy competition, sacrifice, striving, competence and masculinity.”
At his practice sessions, he said, egos are not on the line. He used the word “joy” to describe the mood in the sparring sessions. “These guys are attacking each other and laughing doing it. Someone will get a good hold on an opponent who will say ‘I can’t believe you got me that way,’ tease each other, and go at it again.”
You might say that Jiu Jitsu gave Michael the balance of yin for his yang. It gave him a lifestyle that integrated his English-major and people-person side with his tough and aggressive side.
Getting philosophical about the Jiu Jitsu culture he has experienced, he said, “You never learn anything by winning. Winning can be satisfying and give you a sense of well-being, but you are never going to get better [at anything] unless you go through those losses.”
He speculated that is why Jiu Jitsu is gaining popularity among Americans — because it is answering a deep need that mainstream culture is not giving them.
Also answering that deep need is Michael’s paying job: doing fundraising for a nonprofit called The Boulevard, a 64-bed facility on the West Side, which provides a month or two of respite care for homeless people who have been discharged from the hospital but need more time to rest and recuperate.
The homeless people The Boulevard takes in, he said, come with “a wide raft of physical, physiological, psychological, social, emotional and mental challenges.” Staff at the agency often are not rewarded for their hard work by seeing their clients becoming functional and independent.
“If you want to be able to continue in a very difficult practice like that,” he said, “you have to achieve a really good balance between toughness and compassion, between dedication and acceptance of the reality that, no matter how hard you work, there are limits to what you can hope to achieve and to not let that disempower you.”
“One way in which my work at Boulevard and my practice of Jiu Jitsu dovetail,” he said, “is that they are both part of that journey of figuring out who I am as a person.”