I grew up in a violent home. There was not much hitting, but a lot of rage. I can hardly blame my parents — though in hindsight they could have done things better for themselves– because I learned of the violence they had endured as children. Not that it excuses violent rage, but it explains it, makes an adult’s difficulty controlling their strong emotions at least understandable.
Finding myself frequently having to defend myself against anger that was often indefensible, I acquired an edge. I learned to say something in a way to make you want to punch me in the face. I can do this with the best of ’em. All it takes, really, is anger, experience and a certain facial expression, delivered at the exact right psychological moment. Strictly speaking, no words are needed to make an already angry person explode, though a few well-placed words are like the icing on the cake.
I got tired of fighting. It’s tiring. It’s a useless way to spend your life. It makes for unhappiness. If you’re attacked, sure, don’t tolerate it. Be straightforward, make the hurtfulness clear, tell the attacker to stop. If he doesn’t, walk away. If you can’t get away, don’t let him hit you (if someone comes to kill you, don’t let it happen). If he has a gun, just pretend he is the most reasonable person in the world and listen to what he has to say.
About fifteen years ago I became very impressed with the idea of Ahimsa, “non harm”, which I’ve been trying to practice without any religious framework to support it. Probably a hubristic fool’s errand, but at least I am conscious of not adding fuel to a fire, trying not to provoke people, not fighting when it is completely senseless to fight, when there’s another choice. Better to walk away than engage in a battle of rage, a familiar horror I have walked away from many times now.
I think of my father’s old insistence that people, on a fundamental level, can never really change. There is a problem with that formulation, because we can change ourselves greatly, but on a fundamental level the old man had a point. Somebody who is constantly whipped in the face when he was a baby, as my father was, will be very sensitive to any perceived aggression in a way that somebody born into a warm, nurturing family will not be. Burnt child ‘fraid of fire, as the old song goes (a title my father would quote from time to time).
I was playing touch football with three other young guys (I was around 21, this goes back decades) on a gigantic field in the East Bay in California, near Berkeley. It was two on two, one guy would be the quarterback and the other guy would race out to try to catch a long pass. It was a delightfully cool early fall day. I spent most of the game as the guy who sprinted, with a guy about my size and speed trying to either knock the ball away or intercept the pass. We played for hours, until it got too dark to see the ball in the air.
When we stopped playing I recall feeling an unfamiliar burning in the front of both of my thighs. We’d spent a long time running in short bursts at top speed then trotting back to the line of scrimmage then racing again. We were all tired, but in good spirits, it had been a good game.
We were getting ready to leave, gathering up jackets from the ground, when my fellow receiver, a guy named Joey who drove a sporty convertible with a license plate that said JOE-WHEEEE, tackled me hard from behind. He ran at me and knocked me down from the blind side, as they say. I hit the ground hard and I recall literally seeing red. In about a second I had Joey pinned under my forearm leaning my weight on his windpipe as he struggled to breathe. He thrashed for a few long moments as I calculated if he’d had enough yet. I let him up. He was very hurt, telling me how violent I was. I told him he was an asshole and that was that.
That was years before I’d ever even heard of Ahimsa. I truly don’t know if I’d react any differently now, given similar circumstances. It would go against my deeper belief that there’s no point to answering violence with violence, but, on the other hand, there is also a point, a kind of justice involved. True, it’s the kind of justice that leaves everybody crippled, or missing an eye, but it goes deep in our human experience of what is fair and what is not.
I’m thinking about this because I had a dream last night about a friend who played the melody of Body and Soul beautifully, on harmonica, on a crowded elevated subway train in some city in Europe, while I accompanied him on, probably, a ukulele. We played it something like this (though much less ornately). Nobody in the train car noticed, but I was transported in the dream by the Larry Adler-like virtuosity of my friend’s harmonica playing as I focused on keeping the heartbeat of the music steady and pulsing. The guy in the dream doesn’t play the harmonica in real life (he plays guitar). I have only known one harmonica player, an excellent blues player with a beautiful tone, but he’s not talking to me anymore.
Sekhnet made the obvious connection between this longtime friend who jumped ugly with me recently and the harmonica of the dream. I told her again why I am so perplexed at the permanent loss of my old friend, his wife, a gentle soul forced to take sides in an ugly dispute, who had no real choice. He’d offered to do me a relatively easy favor, changed his mind and insisted he didn’t need to explain anything to me, no means no and that my stubborn refusal to accept this was, apparently, a “New York thang” — I was a pushy fucking New York lawyer Jew to press him in this prosecutorial way about something he had no obligation to explain to me. Then he went on to browbeat me a bit, just for the heck of it, over a series of trifles. He opined that perhaps our “personality conflict” was too great to overcome, though he loved me, man.
I let my hurt and anger cool down before I sent him my reply, but in a way my response was every bit as hurtful as if I’d returned the full measure of his anger at me right away, both barrels blazing. I told him calmly, a week after his final challenge (and I’d savored making him wait), that since it was so important for him to be right, I’d agree that everything he said was correct. He was 100% right.
Then, in a few short, neatly manicured paragraphs, I told him I was not responsible for his low self-esteem (I’m not) and took it from there, bringing in his selfish materialistic values and his tragic misunderstanding of everything truly important in life. My intent was to make him shut up. It worked, there was nothing the fucker could have possibly said in response, but my email was exactly like my forearm across JOE-WHEEE’s throat.
I never saw Joey again after that touch football game, but he was virtually a stranger to me so there was not the slightest pang attached to my arguably appropriate reaction. This harp player and his wife have been good friends of mine for more than thirty years, almost fifty in the case of the wife, who I met when we were teenagers. The guy styles himself a hipster, a pacifist, a laid back Californian (by way of New Jersey) who shuns anger and embraces the light. Except on those rare occasions when he is provoked beyond endurance by someone who won’t fucking take “because I fucking said so, asshole” as the final answer.
Like on a game show: “is that your final answer?”
My reaction leaves me, the type to think about these things long afterwards trying to extract some lesson, some insight, beyond ‘that person is something of a dick’, to wonder about my hard forearm to the harmonica player’s windpipe.