I think that when most people think of martial arts, they think about techniques and kata and nunchaku and cage fighting. I don't think that the thought of being helpful to other people comes to their minds right away. But most martial artists, if not all of them, can probably recall a time in their training where they needed the help of someone else. Perhaps it was to better understand a technique or to begin a form. Perhaps they needed assistance with properly conditioning their body for the physical fitness level that martial arts requires...or maybe they needed help with something more esoteric; maybe a struggle with a life issue or coming to terms with something outside of their control.
I can name many examples of each of those struggles that I've had while training, and I've only been training for a little more than a year. At some point in class, everybody needs a hand with something. It's inevitable when there's something new to be learned.
For example, who can practice a throw on their own? Without a partner, it's difficult to really prepare for that situation, because you're only moving YOUR body and not someone else's. Who can practice a choke defense without being choked? Sure, you can go through the motions until you have it perfect each time, but you need fingers to grab. You need to feel deprived of oxygen. You need to know where to look for air.
When we train, we need other people...and they need us! Since everybody needs assistance with something at some point, this means that most people have an opportunity to give that assistance. Senior students help younger students. Younger students eventually become senior students and continue that cycle.
But whether younger or senior or sensei, everyone has a chance to help someone else.
Right now, in Japan, there are a lot of people who need help due to the earthquake and tsunami. While they might seem stoic and calm, this is because Japanese people have been raised to appear as though they can bear the unbearable (this concept is called 'gaman'). Accepting help is sometimes very hard, but for the Japanese it is much more difficult. Their culture raises them to accept hardship without complaint; to persevere through extremely difficult things with poise and a general "can do" attitude. For a Japanese person, accepting help often feels akin to dumping their problems on another, and that is completely counter-intuitive to their way of life.
Sometimes, we have a hard time accepting help because we're proud; we're embarrassed to not be able to do everything on our own, but in Japan this is just the way of things. With such widespread devastation, so many people are now in need of help, though they will never ask for it. In some cases, they will not even appear to need it. But we all know at least one person who behaves the same way in martial arts. Maybe we ARE that person. I know I've been there.
So my message in this entry is, when you see somebody struggling, help them if you can. When someone hits the mat, I try to help them up. When someone is struggling to learn a technique that I have some understanding of, I try to help them learn. Sometimes others will need help, but they won't ask. That may be a good indicator that you should take the initiative. Whether Japanese or American, we are all human, and humans are not meant to do everything alone.