Smile at Strangers by Susan Schorn

Susan Schorn reads from her debut memoir, Smile at Strangers: And Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly, published in May by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 


Fall down seven times, get up eight.

I'm pondering this phrase, a traditional Japanese proverb—Fall down seven times, get up eight—as I kneel, my feet tucked beneath me, on the hard wooden floor of my karate school. I am attempting to meditate.

Meditation class at my dojo revolves around proverbs like this one (we call them kowa). They’re part of the Zen tradition that infuses our karate practice, and they all impart some wisdom, advice, or warning: After the rain, the earth hardens, or A wise man hears one and understands ten. They give you something to think about as your legs go numb and the muscles between your shoulder blades curl themselves into intricate knots.

In Japanese, kowa can mean either “voice” or “tone.” I like the idea of tone, of the kowa as a keynote, meant to reverberate in your mind like the bell the instructor rings at the beginning and end of each meditation session. Ideally, you allow a kowa to rest lightly on your consciousness as you meditate. You don’t interrogate it or try to solve it. You just let it register at whatever level of awareness you’ve achieved.

I’m sitting in a row with all the other students, in the position we call seiza. All around me I can sense stilled bodies; I can hear quiet breathing and the faint tick of the clock. My hands, clenched into fists, are propped on my hips. My back is straight, my eyes are closed, and my mind is supposed to be calm. Instead, tonight’s kowa ricochets from one corner of my consciousness to another, making the inside of my head buzz and rattle like a racquetball court: Fall down seven times, get up eight.

I’m having trouble with the math.

I know, from long hours spent in this kind of contemplation, that it doesn’t pay to overthink anything related to Zen, yet my mind insists on pointing out the obvious discrepancy: if I fall down once, and I stand back up, I’ve gotten up once. If I fall down again, and get up again, the count is still even: down two times, up two times. Extrapolating on through three, four, five falls, the logic holds. As long as I get up the same number of times I fall, I should end up on my feet. So isn’t the eighth time superfluous?

For some reason, I cannot move past this.

Crap. Meditation class must be halfway over and not only have I not calmed my mind, I’m still bogged down in basic arithmetic. I feel a distinct sense of envy toward my fellow students, whose calm immobility surrounds me. Our instructor, Sensei Joy, is to my left, and has not stirred since we closed our eyes. On my right, my friend Doris Ann exudes an almost palpable air of serenity. She is, like me, the mother of two children, and I feel her tranquility as a silent rebuke to the spasmodic workings of my own mind. I dig my fists into my thighs and take a deep breath.

Calm down, I tell myself. Start over. This proverb is hundreds of years old. You need to listen to it, not proofread it.

Fall down seven times, get up eight. If I can forget about the numbers, it’s not that complicated; the kowa merely stresses the value of perseverance. The importance of getting back up. Once, twice, eight times, or eight hundred—it doesn’t matter. The lesson is, Always get back up. Simple enough.

It’s a nice, tidy slogan, like “Never say die” or “Keep on truckin’!” It would fit inside a fortune cookie or look good on a bumper sticker. But the reason I’m sitting here in a sweatsoaked, malodorous white uniform, torturing myself with Japanese syntax, is not that I need slogans or reminders. I don’t need someone to tell me to get back up every time I fall down. I’m here because I want to be the kind of person who always gets back up, whether anyone tells me to or not.

I don’t take naturally to meditation, or reflection, or sitting still. Being quiet is foreign to my nature and causes me actual physical discomfort. But here I am anyway, banging my consciousness against the brick wall of Zen meditation, because I want to make the idea expressed by this kowa an integral part of me, my instincts, my approach to life. This desire is the primary motivation for my karate training, which I’ve been pursuing now for a decade and a half. Over the years I’ve sweated and yelled, meditated and broken boards and held ice packs to my face, all to convince myself that no matter what happens in my life, no matter what I’m hit with, I will always get back up, however many times it takes; even after I’ve lost count of all the times I’ve been down; even when—and here I have a sudden burst of insight—even when it’s mathematically impossible for me to get up again. I want to be a woman who gets back up, whether she falls, or trips, or is shoved, or knocked down and stepped on, every time she has to—plus once more after that.

The kowa says to me, Fall down seven times, get up eight. I listen to it, and sit with it, and make it mine. And then, when I say the kowa, it comes out as this: “Knock me down seven times, and I won’t just get up seven times. I’ll get up eight, because that’s the kind of stubborn bastard I am.”

It’s not a perfect translation, not really a translation at all; it’s what the kowa turns into when it becomes part of me. It sums up why I’m here: because there are many dangers in the world, but the scariest one is the possibility that we might not get back up—that we might give in to our fears.

Whereas if I know that I will always get back up—because that’s just what I do; it’s who I am—then the thought of falling no longer has the power to terrify me.

I’ve always been a fearful person. I think I was born that way. How else to explain my mother’s inscription across the back of my baptism-day photograph, Susan, October 1967—She just wouldn’t smile? Why did my kindergarten teacher describe me with amusement as a child who acted “like a little old lady”? Why was I the only kid who cared that the school bus didn’t have seat belts?

Environment may have played a role, too. Being the youngest and smallest of five children in a loud, often chaotic household did little to soothe my fears or reduce my startle reflex. And I did seem to run into more than my share of snakes, even for someone growing up in Texas. Whatever the cause—whether it was genetics, or competition with my siblings, or something that scared my mother before I was born—I grew up in constant terror of thunder, darkness, strangers, wasps . . . you name it, it made me nervous.

My fears were manageable when I was young, because my safety was ultimately my parents’ problem. But as I grew older, the circle of danger widened, and the perimeter of my safety became harder and harder to maintain. And then when I was fourteen years old, the mother of a friend of mine was murdered. It was one of those rare events, a completely random crime. The killer was never caught.

Laura’s mother’s death was the first real experience my friends and I had with mortal fear, our graduation from the minor perils of childhood to the terrible losses of adult life. The memory of it remained potent through the rest of my adolescence, as I got a job, dated, and then moved away for college. Every time I stayed out late, went somewhere new, met a stranger, I thought about that tragedy. This was different from my earliest fears. It wasn’t a hypothetical danger, something that could happen. It had happened; I had seen the impact on my friend and her family. Now I knew what devastation was.

I had always been afraid, but after Laura’s mother died, I understood why. The stakes became very clear. And once the enormity of what could be lost sank in, it almost felt like an obligation, that I owed it to myself—and to the memory of Laura’s mother—to be afraid.

And that sense of obligation, the feeling that it was in some way my duty to be afraid, made me angry. I was angry at the way fear constrained my life; angry at the world for failing to obviate my fear. I was angry that society seemed to think women should just get used to seeing themselves as victims. I was angry that a lot of women seemed to agree. 

Unfortunately, anger, as I have learned, makes you do stupid things. It leads you to jump out of your car at stoplights, pick up smoldering cigarette butts, and hand them back to the startled strangers who just tossed them out the window. It compels you to tell people exactly what you think of them, at precisely the wrong time. Or anger can tie your tongue, leaving you voiceless and impotent in the midst of your outrage.

It can prompt you to make impetuous hand gestures—gestures of the type that have never, in all of recorded history, brought about greater understanding and goodwill among peoples. Anger, in other words, can get you into the very same kind of trouble you feared in the first place.

I was dogged by fear and hamstrung by the anger that accompanied it until I found karate. It took me thirty years to find. I had dabbled in other martial arts, thinking they might make me a better person somehow, but the magic didn’t happen until I connected with a school, and a teacher, who understood my fear and anger. Karate’s fusion of physical and meditative practice helped me control the effects of those emotions on my body and mind. Karate taught me how to fight, when to fight, and how to keep fighting even when the fight went badly. It taught me how to handle conflict in all kinds of situations, dramatic or mundane. It taught me how to fall down, get back up, and then deal with whatever knocked me down.

My dojo also gave me a framework for assessing risk and understanding violence systematically, and a spiritual foundation to sustain me when analysis failed. My training made me a member of a community where I came to know others in relation to myself. I learned how to acknowledge others’ authority, and how to wield my own. I got better at negotiating differences, communicating respect and appreciation, and showing compassion—all things I was dreadful at before I started training. And through karate, I came to realize that the connections we form with one another do just as much to strengthen and protect us as any physical training ever could.

I spent many years as a fearful person. Karate made me less fearful, and more of a person. 

It hasn’t made me perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. Even after all this time, I still frequently have moments of doubt, frustration, and even blind panic—the feeling that I’m never going to get this. I still try my family’s patience and irritate my training partners. I still, once in a while, say rude things with my hands. My attempts to live without fear have been characterized by failure, contradiction, and a lot of low comedy. There’s been a lot of falling down. But I keep trying; I keep getting back up. I’m pretty sure now that I always will.


Reprinted from Smile at Strangers: And Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishers. Copyright © 2013 by Susan Schorn.