Lessons from Having Been Bullied 2: Non-Violent Action
My own violence appears to come, lately, from a hair-trigger on my frustration; I seem to have no reserves, no patience, especially when tired out, for things going wrong, for the toilet being broken, for stupid and dangerous moves by drivers on the freeway, for things taking longer they need to in the grocery store checkout line, during which I must quietly fume while everyone in front of me seems oblivious. I flash into rage at small provocation; I am so tired I get blown about but every wind of change, and lose my center. I seem to have a capacity for violent anger that frightens even myself at times. No, that’s not right: not frightens: it is after all familiar. It is not new. What it is, is that I don’t like feeling anymore the way I feel when I’m feeling violent. I want to feel at peace, not violent. This isn’t the same thing, either, as feeling at-arms. That’s a feeling of readiness, of responsiveness to anything, but it's not a violent feeling, it’s a centered one. I yearn for peace, and part of me craves peace, after all the turbulence of recent years, even as I know that yearning and craving are not the ways to achieve peace. You have to master yourself, and create peace within yourself. Peace ripples outwards from a calm center; it cannot be imposed from outside, because imposition is coercion, which is itself a kind of violence. Forcing myself to appear to be calm when I don’t feel that way, pushing my feelings aside, stuffing my feelings to make other people happy, have all come to feel like kinds of violence I do to myself. These no longer feel acceptable; they make me ill. There are moments in polite company when I feel I must force myself to act in ways that are anathema to my soul, just to try to make others love and respect me—and it never works. It never did before, it still doesn’t. You can’t get the bullies to respect you by giving in to them, and you can’t get them to leave you alone by either hiding or by becoming their slave. Bullies respect only those who bully them first; it’s all about the transference of anger. In truth, bullies suffer from a severe deficit of self-respect; their anger is their way of acting it out against the world.
I learned from being bullied that I hate coercion, in all shapes, all contexts, all formats, all manners. I do not like to see people imposing their will on others. I do not like to see people coerced rather than cajoled. I do not enjoy seeing the violence we all do to ourselves, when we force ourselves to do or say things we know in our hearts are wrong. We coerce ourselves into disobeying our highest inner guidance mostly because we’re afraid to trust. We are mostly violent to ourselves: what we turn outwards is often little more than a dim reflection of our inner turmoil.
This is not the same dynamic as adults disciplining children, to teach them to master themselves. Letting children run free with no discipline—and discipline does not equate with punishment—teaches them only how to be self-centered and misbehaving. It spoils them. Adults who gently and firmly, with calm strength, guide their children away from harm, are teaching them to become eventual adults, rather than grown-up children.
In our culture, we equate strength with violence, verbal as well as physical. Our culture is dominated in the arts and in politics by bullying. The movies and TV and all other media present us with revenge fantasies and ultra-violence as ways of solving the problems we can’t solve. Terrorists bothering you? Just blow them away! We are presented with so-called humor that is all about put-downs and verbally flaying one’s antagonist: and we call that comedy. Hardly any message ever gets through, in our media, that the cycle of violence has a cost both in human lives and in personal tragedy. (Michael Mann’s movie Heat is one of the few recent films that show how the cycle of violence takes down everybody, good guys as well as bad.) We equate doing right with blowing away the bad guys. Our justice is still frontier justice. (Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Gran Torino, from its trailers appears be a return to form of his spaghetti-Western justice-equals-violence roots. Although the film's ending subverts that expectation.) We turn our killers into our heroes, and our sages into victims. (We have unlearned what we learned from Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King, whose messages of nonviolent resistance have been lost under a welter of political bullets. Both of these modern saints were assassinated by bullet: a symbolic gesture of crucifixion and martyrdom, from whose shadows we still await resurrection.) We also turn our righteous heroes into killers, and our pious victims into sages, wise only in the hindsight of the afterlife. (Even righteous defensive battles are transformed into gratuitously violent bloodbaths in comic-book inspired films like 300 or Desperado. Only the dead can be honored, in such scenarios, while the living struggle only towards death, with no other meaning to life either offered or available. This isn’t existentialism, it’s nihilism.)
Our culture’s images of strength are the images of bullies. They are images of strength that dominates, that pressures, that over-values violent solutions. We project onto our villains our own inner sadism. Most action movies are revenge fantasies concocted to compensate for existential insecurities in a chaotic, dangerous, violent world. They are the fantasies of masochists. We unconsciously ask ourselves, How is one to survive in this dangerous, violent, unpredictable and frightening universe into which we have been born? Bullying is the childish, even infantile response: you hit back at those who have hit you. Action movies are a symptom of how emotionally infantile our culture has become. It’s all sand-box playground action: you kick sand in my face, I’ll bury you behind the kindergarten. The cemetery on boot hill is always just behind the schoolhouse.
The emotional infantilism we see in action movies also plays out as the unending thirst for heroes who will solve our problems for us: who will rescue us (we are all collectively damsels in distress), who will protect us (we are children who are being bullied), or in the worst case scenario, will avenge us after we have been murdered.
The thirst for a strong authority figure leads us in movies as well as in politics to project onto the action hero or the priest or the teacher a cloak of final authority. We give away our power by giving it to authority figures—benign or otherwise—rather than acting on our own behalf. We want revenge for having been bullied, so we ask the action hero to kill the bad guys in our name. We want to be vindicated in our beliefs, so we ask our priests to be perfect automatons of righteousness, veering never from the path—being, in fact, never fully human. We want to learn the answer to Why? so we turn to our teachers and sages to ask for the impossible: we want to know why we suffer, why we hurt, why we hurt each other, why there is so much pain in the world. “Why?” is the most suffering question in the world, itself, because it has no answer. And when our teachers and sages cannot answer the unanswerable, we throw their persons away along with their wisdom, sacrificing them on the altar of our endless need to find rational answers to explain away the irrational.
Revenge fantasies are for the living—the dead don’t care—and all they ultimately do is perpetuate the cycle of violence. Proactively attacking a foreign country to “prevent” terrorism only creates a new generation of terrorists: more bullies in the sandlot. War is the act of children.
Real strength needs no violence. Real strength is supple, flexible, and adaptable. Real strength might appear weak, when you stand it up side by side with some iconic action hero, but real strength endures after the action figures have all been broken and discarded. You can knock the action hero down, but the true Warrior blends with every action to move around it and deflect it harmlessly away.
Real strength is soft and firm strength. It flows and ripples and changes depending on the situation. Real strength is adaptable. It only appears “soft” when your idea of “strength” is hard as rock. But water washes away stone, and rivers dissolve mountains, eroding them down to nothing. Which is the stronger force, then? Water or stone?
In our culture, it is still rare and somewhat suspect to equate overcoming with acceptance, with blending, with going with the flow. We are taught that we must make a stand, and we imagine that taking a stand is a violent act, when in fact it’s an act of witness, or being present and aware, enacted by simply refusing to back down and be bullied. (All evil requires for its success is for good people to do nothing.)
In my own situation, of which my dreams remind me, I remain emotionally open and vulnerable. When I see the people I know and care about engage in renewed cycles of violence, verbal if not physical, I find myself unable to stand it, and I leave. Am I so fragile? No, but I’m in the midst of my own process of life-changing alterations and self-assessment. I find I have no ability at present to watch others be violent to themselves and each other. It makes me feel physically ill. (Empathy is, or can be, feeling like your own gut was punched when you see someone else get punched.) My current fragility is a function of being a new being, not yet hardened by life; a function of everything old and lead-laden having been stripped to the marrow and cracked open like raw meat. It physically hurts me to watch you hurt each other. Verbal attacks, even those based on misunderstandings, are as painful to me as though someone had stuck a flensing knife under my flesh and ripped my skin off. I am not-yet-hardened, and certain now that I don’t want to become that way again. I don’t want to retreat into my hermitage, and turn my back on the world, and avoid all pain and suffering; I know full well that avoiding suffering does not alleviate it, that one must walk into it and embrace it. But being engaged with the world brings me more and more pain, to the point where I must retreat, if only for a little while. Today is not the day in which I desire to be crucified. I do not have a solution to this dilemma of approach/avoidance; it remains an unresolved paradox. And we all know that the Divine enters at the point of paradox; which is another reason this dream felt like a message-dream. When we stand at the point of the paradox, what can we learn from holding violence and non-violence side by side?
My strength lies in two areas: my ability to see things that apparently others do not see—which has always been inexplicable to me, I have learned to accept it as truth, even though I don’t understand it; and, that inner core of incorruptible, indestructible,, silent awareness that is the Warrior—which I have now known of for two decades and more, at first only obliquely, but which by now I have seen many times be revealed as the center of my being when all else has been stripped or chiseled away. I have come to value both of these, and to rely on them: the Seer and the Warrior. I cannot thank my Ki Aikido teachers enough, especially Sensei Jonathon Ely, who lived what we taught, quietly demonstrating to me a way of being in the world that did no violence to it or to himself, for revealing these aspects of my strength to me, and for guiding its development and growth. In the dream, the elder who gently and lovingly subdued those two men (even labeling them as thugs perpetuates a kind of violence) did so with compassionate action, with non-violent action. He did not stand by and be dispassionate and withdrawn. His actions in subduing those two men prevented them from doing further injury to others, but also from being injured themselves. They were changed because they were awakened, however dimly, to the knowledge that there was an effective and non-violent way to master the world, and themselves.
Is my weakness my strength? Am I truly fragile, or am I rather supple? Is this current lack of rock-hard force-field shielding, my open vulnerability to the world, a weakness or a strength? Was the dream a reminder that I already have the strength I need to master myself, if I’d just remember it was there? The dream was a message-dream, in truth: a reminder that openness is always better than fear, that engaging with love and dignity is true strength, that redirecting the force of coercion away from one’s center reveals that coercion only binds itself into its own trap, that genuine compassion can wear away even the biggest boulders in the stream.