There was a bulletin board at my dad’s martial arts studio, and amidst the tournament flyers, class schedules, and offers for piano lessons, was forever pinned an old, weathered newspaper cartoon of a bird who had almost swallowed a frog, except the frog had one arm reaching out of the bird’s mouth and a hand wrapped around the bird’s neck, choking him. The caption read, “Never give up.”
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I didn’t really get it at the time, but it was there for my father, who never gave up. Ever. On anything. He literally fought for a living and fought in his spare time too, waging legal battles on behalf of the sport of taekwondo: He fought to get it into the Olympics, he fought for modern innovation and more accurate refereeing, and he fought against corruption within the political martial arts community.
His home office was crowded with five-inch binders full of legal documents, and he spent nights yelling on the phone on behalf of fairness and equality. He would often wake up yelling and kicking in the middle of the night, fighting invisible battles even in his sleep. It killed him in the end—he had a stress-induced heart attack. It’s on his death certificate.
My mother used to say that Dad’s downfall was his expectation that life’s fights should be waged the same way fights on the mat are: You bow to your opponent, you take up position, and everyone plays by the rules. Except that’s not how it works. In life, people lie and cheat and wait until you turn your back so they can stab you in it. In fact, this line of thinking has become one of my family’s most defining philosophies: You can’t trust anyone except family. The other one is: Let’s try not to end up like Dad.
If my 20s were defined by bad brows, my 30s have been defined by just that—trying to break the cycle of fighting for things that are not worth my life. This has led me to break a two-year engagement, leave an acting career I had spent 15 years fighting for, and put an aggressive and violent dog to sleep after 10 years of trying to fix him. I even wrote an essay about it. If fighting was my dad’s life, quitting seems to have become mine.
Do I believe in fighting? I want to say no. I think of the things I’ve fought for, and they’ve brought me nothing but a big pain in the ass. I fought for my ex like I was fighting for my life, and it turned out to be a mistake that occupied almost the entirety of my early adulthood. I fought aimlessly for my former career when all my love for it had withered away years before. I fought to keep my aggressive and dangerous dog, and suffered sleepless nights, doctor bills, and more physical and emotional scars than I care to count.
And I regret nothing in the past 10 or so years except for the overwhelming desire to go back in time and punch myself in the face for fighting the inevitable for so goddamn long.
That’s not the point though. In fact, it’s the opposite of the point. It’s the opposite because, in thinking about the things I have walked away from in the past four years, I think the joke might have been on me the entire time. I thought I was successfully un-becoming my father, but, in truth, I’m every bit the fighter he was.
If I really were a quitter, I would have married my ex and lived a sad life where I would be miserable in ways I still can’t share because I’m sure he’ll read this at some point, and I’d receive another goddamn email about it. If I wasn’t a fighter, I would still be mindlessly stapling resumes to the backs of headshots and trying to meditate to activate an inner happiness my soulless job was slowly leeching out of me. If I wasn’t a fighter, I wouldn’t have had the courage to finally bring my lost little boy peace and give myself the first full, restful night of sleep I’ve had in 10 years.
It’s OK that it has been a marathon and not a sprint, and that I stop a lot for Gatorade along the way.
The difference is, I fight for my happiness, I fight for a better future, one I am still fighting to believe in. It’s OK that it has been a marathon and not a sprint, and that I stop a lot for Gatorade along the way. The important part—even when I thought I was taking my number off and walking away—is that I never actually stopped running. Although I believed I was fighting to not end up like my dad, I ended up becoming a truer version of him, and myself.
I still believe we should fight for the things we want, but now I know that sometimes that fight doesn’t look the way we thought it would. Sometimes the fight is not glorious or elegant or bold. Sometimes it’s just sitting down and gripping the arms of a chair at work until you’re positive you won’t get up and run away as fast as you can.
Sometimes it’s fighting to keep a door closed because you don’t trust yourself to walk through it again. Sometimes it’s saying goodbye to something safe and known, where you are loved and appreciated, because you are fighting for something more.
I have a bulletin board in my apartment and, amidst the letters from friends and pictures from students, wedding and baby shower invites, and snapshots of my dogs, is forever pinned an old, weathered newspaper cartoon of a bird who had almost swallowed a frog, except the frog has one arm reaching out of the bird’s mouth and a hand wrapped around the bird’s neck, choking him. The caption reads, “Never give up.”It’s for my father, who never gave up. Ever. It’s for me too.
Mikayla Park is a teacher/nonprofit creative person residing in the slums of Beverly Hills. Find her, and her two charming rescue dogs, everywhere at @mikaylapark.