The famous “Wax-On, Wax-Off” scene in Karate Kid stands as a pivotal movie reference point for kids like me in the 90’s who watched it for the first time. We all wanted Mr. Miyagi to be our cool, Yoda-like sensei.
In this clip, Ralph Macchio’s character Daniel La Russo has just about had it with doing Mr. Miyagi’s housechores for free. He wanted to learn karate, not be his slave! And then, right as he declares that he wants to quit, Mr. Miyagi calmly shows him that he has been teaching him karate the entire time.
But, some people wonder, why didn’t Mr. Miyagi just explain this to Daniel in the beginning of his training-that the repetitive movements of waxing a car and painting a fence functioned as conditioning exercises in karate moves? Surely he would have prevented the confusion, stress, and anger that Daniel went through.
Of course, it is because the sensei's true aim was to train Daniel's mind. The valuable and sacred lesson that will last for all time is this: When Mr. Miyagi tells you to wax on and wax off, just do it. Do not expect or depend on any outcomes, and you will be rewarded with a special ability that cannot be attained in any other way.
As we can see in “The Karate Kid,” the desire for the master -or sensei- lives on for generations. There’s something important and necessary in the art of obedience, something that we are longing to preserve but don’t know how.
Traditional figures of authority are fading out in our culture, replaced with a devout loyalty to doubt & skepticism. America embraces rebellion as its legacy, always setting out to destroy the limits to our knowledge and desires. Yet in our pursuit to always know more, we can become lost in the endless and fruitless accumulation of information, leaving us quite confused and questioning everything we think about. Especially when it comes to how we want to live our lives. This is the freedom of individualism under capitalism, but it's not without it's anxious consequences.
In this way, the mind's natural desire for knowledge can become its own weakness if not left unsatisfied. Mr. Miyagi knew this.
Without a Mr. Miyagi in our lives, we are unable and unwilling to grasp the wisdom of doing things without knowing why. The moment when Daniel realizes that he was already doing karate, is the moment we kids (and adults) realized that we know more about the world than we think, just by living in it and doing the work.
And now the real training can begin.