Lesson 1: Before And After

This is the first lesson that spread to the rest of my life. The discipline I study—the German school of fencing—emphasizes acting first. In fencing, you have to struggle to control the engagement. The German school describes two forces that control the flow of battle: vor (“before”) and nach (“after”).

Vor VS Nach

While in vor, you force your opponent to react to you. You make the strikes, you move first, and you control your opponent. If you can avoid it, you never want to be in nach, where you are only reacting to advances. In nach, you have no time to mount your own offensive—how can you, when you’re so busy fending off your enemy?

For the longest time, from childhood right up until the beginning of young adulthood, I never took the initiative. I took on projects because somebody else wanted me to, or because I had to. In fencing terms, I spent the first half of my life in nach. The world trapped me under its advances.

It took learning swordplay to get me to struggle. I say that in a good way—struggling means you’re fighting for something, that you don’t want to give up. Always struggle.

I fought for initiative. I took on projects because I wanted to. I made plans on my own. I did things. And I ended up a lot happier for it.

But you can’t just take a single approach and hammer on it for the rest of your life. In swordplay, there are moments when you must concede vor and take nach. If your opponent’s vor is stronger and more reckless than yours, and you can’t keep up, you have to give them space. You have to step back, into nach, and wait for an opportunity.

Last year, a friend of mine went through a really hard time. At a time like that, you can’t just keep moving forward relentlessly. I had to wait for my friend to be ready to open up. You can’t push somebody in a situation like that. You need to take time, recuperate, and think about the next move. Life hits harder than you can, and it’s okay to take a step back. Sometimes you have to.

To review: Keep an eye on the balance of vor and nach. Struggle to take the initiative, but don’t be afraid to step back when you need to. And when you take those steps back, make sure you’re always planning your next step forward.


Rob Sullivan

Rob Sullivan is a writer, musician, fencer, and full-time human being. He is an Ottawa native, with a mix of Newfoundland and French-Canadian blood. He writes young adult fiction, but has a soft spot for essays. He is also known as "that guy who really likes Rush." Rob has recently written The Crush, an urban fantasy web novel.

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