Sharon Salzberg, a Buddhist teacher who specializes in loving-kindness, tells of riding with a friend in a rickshaw in Calcutta when man grabbed her and tried to pull her out of the carriage. Her friend pushed the man off her, and they got away safely. When Sharon told her teacher about the incident, he said, “Here’s what you should have done. Using great loving-kindness, you should have hit him on the head with your umbrella.”1
This is freedom, and it is rebellion. Some of us learn that we have to get back at anyone who hurts us or our families. We learn that we need to protect our name, not let anyone disrespect us. Others of us learn we need to be sweet, good, always obedient, and gentle. I believe in love and kindness. I encourage compassion, generosity, assuming the best. At the same time, I advocate for safety.
If nice means being sweet, passive, and undemanding, then being nice is not always best. If, on the other hand, being nice means respecting and loving others, while also sticking up for ourselves and holding people accountable, then being nice is pretty good. This latter is the kind of niceness Sharon’s teacher advised.
This kind of niceness has an extra benefit. It not only protects us, in as much as that is possible, it also protects the potential perpetrator, because any time we harm someone, we damage our own souls. Sharon’s friend used a gentler violence to push away the man who threatened her. By hitting him on the head with her umbrella, Sharon would do the same thing: use a relatively small violence to stop a larger one.
Of course, we can’t always protect ourselves. That’s the reality of life. We like to think we can, because this reality makes us feel helpless and scared. When in spite of our fantasy that we are strong and capable, we get hurt, we often feel furious. We want to hurt the other person worse than he hurt us.
We saw this after 911. We looked for someone to blame, someone who made the mistake that let this awful thing happen. If we could figure out who messed up and how, we could punish the fool. The we could fool ourselves into thinking it would never happen again. We also lusted for revenge. We had to find a villain so we could destroy her, even if we ended up destroying innocent lives at the same time. Our insanity of fear, sadness, and rage trapped us.
In some subcultures of our country, and probably most of the world, we see this same fear, sadness, and rage on a daily basis. Considerate, nice people can be taken advantage of, abused, or even killed. We react out of our anger and fear because we live in unsafe neighborhoods or are raised by adults with addictions and multiple traumas. Just as do our parents and friends, we lash out. We over-react.
Our dog, Dusty, spent his early years roaming the streets. He’s afraid of skate boards and big, inflatable balloons. He’s also the dominant type. Although he likes to play, he doesn’t get to very often, because if another dog looks at him funny, he immediately wrestles the poor animal to the ground. No checking it out; no warning look. Dusty allows no second chances, and he makes sure his meaning is clear. Like many of us, he over-reacts because he feels unsafe and uncertain.
Survival on the Street
A group of people who tend to over-react are young men, especially those who grow up in tough neighborhoods and without loving fathers. In Chicago, a program started by Tony Ramirez-DiVittorio called Becoming a Man (BAM) is is having some success at addressing the challenges these young men face. Ramirez-DiVittorio himself grew up adrift, turning his life around because of a martial arts instructor who served as a mentor for him. Now he helps young men like he was. BAM teaches tools to disadvantaged teenagers so they can manage their reactivity.
Not that the program is trying to make these teens sweet and nice. In his article about BAM, Dwyer Gunn writes that “one of the things counselors affirm for students is that sometimes they might indeed need to fight.”2 They don’t ignore the reality of these young people’s lives. If aggression is called for, they realize the teens will be aggressive. Instead of trying to stop that entirely, they are trying to teach the young men to think first, consider their options, and be deliberate in their responses.
For instance, when a teacher orders one of these youth to sit down, the teen can take a breath and realize this is probably not the best time to argue. Sometimes you can let things go and sit down. If someone bumps into them, they can consider whether or not the act is really a challenge. Even if they think it is, will they ever see that person again? Do they need to do anything? The young men can ask themselves, “Is this a time when I need to fight back, or do I not?”3
The Strength of Restraint
Slowing down enough to ask this question is a kind of freedom. It’s also a kind of rebellion. In the face of messages from family, society, and friends, the young men in Ramirez-DiVittorio’s program are learning to become themselves. They are growing, changing, and embracing values that sometimes defy what their parents taught them.
This kind of restraint takes strength. We need strength of mind to control our tempers; strength of heart to be different from our parents. We may decide to fight because we refuse to be bullied forever, or we decide to hit someone over the head with an umbrella because we prefer to commit a small violence than allow a larger one.
Our society doesn’t teach us to be measured and thoughtful. It teaches us to punish, take revenge, destroy the enemy. The United States became what it is today because of Western Europeans who rebelled against kings and religious persecution. They longed for freedom. Yet as they fled their homeland and fought for independence from the distant governments who claimed sovereignty over them, they persecuted and oppressed the Native Americans who already lived here.
As this historical trauma passes down to us through the generations, we get caught up in a similar quest for independence, power over, control, and freedom.
Freedom and Rebellion
But freedom is not just about having no bosses; it is also about being free to be bossed by our higher self. Instead of being bossed by our desire for revenge and our craving to be in charge, we can be bossed by the recognition that revenge is an empty victory and controlling someone else is, in the end, impossible.
When we insist on taking revenge and making others do what we want, we allow our fear of weakness and lust for power to control us. Freedom invites us to step back and respond with grace and intelligence. The true rebel sets down her weapons and communicates. The true rebel incapacitates the enemy without hating him.
In faith and fondness,
1. I had read this story years ago, but couldn’t remember where, until I found it quoted in Toni Bernhard’s “Who Didn’t Say That?” at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/turning-straw-gold/201307/who-didn-t-say-ten-surprising-misattributed-quotation.
2. Gunn, Dwyer, “Breaking the Cod of the Streets: What Can Science Tell Us About How to Reduce Youth Violence,” Psychology Today, July/August 2016, Volume 49, No. 4, 68-77, 76.
3. Ibid, 76.
Photo Credit: By Jesse Schoff from Unsplash.