When witnessing the deafening thuds and desperate groans of Judo practitioners, gentleness, or Ju as the Japanese say, is the last thing that crosses your mind. Even less so when you come face to face with Willians Araujo da Silva, the 23-year-old, 250 lbs black belt that promises to shine for Brazil in next years Paralympics. It’s not immediately obvious that he’s blind when you first meet him. Mr. Silva’s composure and sense of direction are nearly superhuman. It’s only when he sticks out his hand to greet you that you notice it’s angled just a few degrees off; the fact that he’s blind begin to sink in. And still his sense of direction and space is so good as to create this lingering doubt as to whether he really is blind or not. It’s only when you see him kick a wall inadvertently or nearly fall in the gap between the subway car and the platform that you’re truly convinced.
“You should come see my place”, he said brimming with pride after practice. It’s really a bland middle class condo in a bad part of town that most people would find underwhelming. “The worst part about my old place was waking up in the morning and being ankle deep in water in your own bedroom. Oh the and rats too”. He recalled and seemingly trying to forget at the same time. Mr. Silva was raised in Favela do Alemão, one of the most notorious slums in Rio de Janeiro. His new apartment, which he bought with his Judo winnings, isn’t too far from his old place despite being worlds better. Although he’s happy with his own place, he bubbles with joy when boasting that he was also able to buy his parents a modest but dignified house too.
“Well does it pay?” His father asked years ago when Mr. Silva began practicing the sport. “Not really”, he told his dad. “Well then get a real job, something that pays”, was his no nonsense fatherly response. Despite the lack of support from his then skeptical family, he bravely continued though their doubt. After the 2011 Parapan games in Mexico where he unexpectedly placed 2nd, a local Brazilian TV crew interviewed him. His father coincidentally happened to be watching. It was then Mr. Silva said, that his family realized his potential.
What makes Mr. Silva stand out though, is his Ju, his gentleness. Someone in Mr. Silva’s shoes would be understandably frustrated. Frustrated at not being able to see the look of joy on his mothers face when she says he’s a gift from God. Frustrated from often stumbling into the various obstacles life throws at him. Frustrated from the regret of loosing his sight at age 11 from a fireworks accident. But he manages the opposite; to count his blessings not dwell on his curses. The irony is that if he hadn’t lost his vision, he likely would have wound up just another forgotten slum dweller creatively trying to make ends meet. Instead, his blindness has opened doors he would not have seen otherwise. The secret to Judo they say is to use your opponents force against him. Mr. Silva can teach us that perhaps there is some wisdom to found in our misfortune, some gentler way through life.