When I was
in the eighth grade a school bully punched me in the mouth. I can't remember
what, if anything, I did to provoke him. I might have offered up some helpful
character evaluation that he hadn't actually requested from me. It happens.
The guy was
about double my size, and since winning the fight was unlikely, I adopted the
more conservative strategy of losing as quickly as possible. Minimize the
damage. So I stood there and let this troglodyte punch me once, right in the
face. Then I did what comes naturally, which turns out to be sitting down absent
any conscious intent. Your knees just sort of fold up under you, as if your pants were
suddenly empty. It's like a magic trick--"And now, presto! Your legs, they
was it. The "fight" was over.
I ended up
with a fat lip for three or four days, and he ended up being publicly humiliated in front of the whole class by our crew cut, ex-Marine, boy's gym
teacher. Why? Because he'd just decked a guy half his size, who'd never even
put up his dukes. I guess you could call that a kind of moral victory for me, but
it wasn't a matter of conscience. It was just plain survival. Had the guy been
closer to my size, I would've been happy to give fighting him an honest shot.
And then fallen down.
To this day
I have no real combat skills to speak of. I did go with a friend once to his
boxing gym, not that long ago. The whole experience, while admittedly fascinating,
didn't inspire me to study the sweet science. For one thing, it's exhausting.
Those gloves get heavy fast. The trainer had me out there in the ring, dancing
around, utterly winded, throwing punches into pads long past the point in a
real fight where I would have simply paid the other guy good money to call the
whole thing settled.
look, you know what? I need to sit down or I’m gonna puke. How about this--I am
a dick, and will you take a check?"
Of course I
wouldn't mind having the skills of, say, a Jack Reacher type. It's most men's
fantasy to be able to fight like Lee Childs's hyper-violent hero. And yes, I
have read Lee Childs, you snob. Ignore the fact that the man writes prose like
Hemmingway with ADHD, the brilliance of his storytelling and character drawing
skills is immediately apparent when you watch the first Jack Reacher movie.
the third act crisis Reacher is coming to confront a small army of bad guys,
all carrying fully-automatic weapons. They know he's on the way and they're
ready and waiting for him. For his part, Reacher is armed with a Bowie knife.
That's it. And all you can think as you watch this scene unfolding is--man, are those guys fucked. Jack
Reacher is seriously gonna mess them up.
wouldn't want to have that kind of deadly physical capability? As opposed to
being me, who has a fossilized back and some weird problem with his tendons, and
who would probably lose in a cage fight against Abe Vigoda. Fortunately the whole
mano a mano scenario doesn't come up much
anymore. The last time I was confronted with physical violence was a very long
time ago. And fighting my way out of that situation almost certainly wouldn't
have been one of the best choices available.
Late at night, and I was driving my aging, yellow Honda Civic from
Dallas to Fort Worth to visit a friend. I had just stopped to fuel up. This
would have been the mid 1980's, and now that I think of it I may well have been
sporting a mullet. Guys my age hide those 80's hair photos now like German
nationals of my father's generation must have hidden snapshots of themselves in
station was out of the way, empty and automated. As I recall there was no attendant
on duty when I pulled in. I imagine he was off on a break somewhere, possibly smoking
a joint and trying to deal with the fact that he lived on the great windswept plains
of a huge and mighty continent, and spent half his waking life trapped in a four
by eight foot booth. It would've bugged me too.
As I filled
my tank with unleaded under the buzzing glare of the station's fluorescents, a man
approached me, walking out of the shadows. Fairly big dude, maybe six-three or
six four and husky. I can't recall how he was dressed, but it wasn't shabby or dirty.
That would have set off alarm bells, like this is going to be a panhandle
so be prepared. No, he was dressed well enough that it didn't immediately enter
my mind he might want money.
"Hey, you got a cigarette?" He'd stopped a polite distance away, not invading my personal space at all.
move away, though. Just stood there. So okay, he wanted something, obviously. I
still didn't take him for a panhandler though. There wasn't that air of undisguised,
even amplified need or sadness that people tend to project right before asking
for a hand out, trying to prime the sympathy pump.
light?" he said.
And I kind
of wish I had, because that would've been interesting, really. Just taking out
a little disposable Bic and flicking it on to show that, yes, I do in fact have
a lighter and it functions too. Why do you ask, my friend, since apparently you
don't have a cigarette?
So now my
antennae were up, of course. But I wasn't feeling any fear. Maybe it was his
eyes, or his face--no tension. He wasn't sketchy or twitchy at all. He was just
standing casually beside my car watching me pump gas. And then he looked off
into the darkness, over his shoulder.
buddy is in the bushes over there. With a gun. It's pointed at you." There
was no particular menace in his voice. He was watching me again.
look in the direction he'd just indicated with his glance. I was busy studying
his face. Was he going to smile in a second? Play it all off as a joke? Was
there really someone over there in the bushes? Probably not, but certainly it wasn't
worth taking the bet. No do-overs on that one if you got it wrong.
decided right away I wasn't going to try and fight or run. I just maintained
eye contact and said nothing. Maybe not the best strategy. After a moment he
raised his arm and brought his fist down on the roof of my car with a BANG.
Later I would notice the roof was dented where he'd struck it, right along the
seam near the top of the door. Where it was reinforced by the steel frame.
over your money," he said, his voice still steady, calm, his expression
I have no
idea why I did what I did next. In retrospect it doesn't sound too smart. It
was in a sense confrontational, which is arguably about the last thing I should
have been doing, even if there was no gunman out there. But I didn't see it
that way, not at the time. I only saw that despite appearances this man didn't
actually have the upper hand, or any real power at all. Because his intention
was to rob me, and I knew like you know you're breathing that it wasn't going
to happen. In fact it wasn't even possible.
okay," is all I said. I took out my wallet, opened it. There wasn't much
cash in there, maybe forty dollars. Not that it mattered, that would all be
utterly irrelevant in moment. I removed the bills and said, "I'm giving
this to you. You understand? This is not a robbery."
speak. He didn't move. He just looked at me.
know how long the moment hung there. Him looking into my eyes, me looking into
his. Probably only a few seconds, but it felt longer. Time flows differently in
a moment like that. It flows like water across a flat driveway when it hits
some invisible change in surface composition, and stops, and backs up, pools in place, pressure building, until it suddenly shoots forward again.
don't really need this money," I said, holding out the cash to him. "If
you need it, it's yours."
at the money. Back at me. "What are you, some kind of
He spoke with contempt, the first real emotion he'd shown. He
was looking for an explanation that made sense here. Was I just doing what some
religious creed demanded? Would I ask him now if he'd accepted the Lord Jesus into
his heart? Invite him back to my church, drop another soul into the collection
basket with pride? There had to be selfishness behind this somewhere.
I said, "No. It
doesn’t matter. I want you to have this if you truly need it."
holding the money out. Time pooled
up again. Finally...
it." He turned and walked off. Not in the direction of the bushes he'd
pointed to earlier. He didn't look back at me. I watched him disappear into
the money to my wallet, pocketed that, pulled the fuel nozzle
out of my car and hung it back on the pump. Calm, no post-crisis adrenaline
rush, no jitters. I climbed back in my car and started driving again toward
I knew all
the details of what had just happened, I was there after all, but I didn't
fully understand the meaning of it for a long time. I had just stopped a
robbery. I had stopped it without force or fighting or even fleeing. I had
stopped it with my own power to choose, and there is no greater power in the
world. None. It would be many years before I could fully wrap my head around
had a saying that's difficult to appreciate today. A Sage--which was the Stoic
ideal of a good man--could be happy even on the rack. That seems hard to
believe when I can't easily get over being stuck in the middle seat on a cross
country flight. Me, a platinum level frequent flyer no less. You have to understand what the
Stoics meant by "happiness."
is the word they used, which translates better as "flourishing." To
flourish, the Stoics believed, we need only to practice the virtues proper to a
thinking human being, and that is something which is always within our power to
choose, something with which no one could really interfere. It's a philosophy
of life and of what is truly of value that has many detractors, an extreme view
that is notoriously difficult to defend.
I saw it that night. I saw the power in the kind of choices that no one can
ever take from me. To be compassionate. To be forgiving. To be generous. To let
time for fighting, I believe. Had that man demanded I hand over my child, or
your child, I would have stood my ground if it cost me my life. And that would
have been my free choice too. Win or lose, I would do so honorably. That's all I can ever do, and that's all that matters.
Mitchell, a man who has seen more than his share of difficulty and who uses
what he learned to help others where he can, puts it this way--it's not what
happens to you, it's what you do about it. He's right,
of course. And therein lies real freedom and a terrible responsibility.