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 are gone!

And that 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.

"Okay 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?"

 

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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.

At 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 in for it. Jack Reacher is seriously gonna mess them up.

C'mon, who 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.

 

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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 late 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 Nazi uniforms.

The 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.

I punched my credit card, and began filling my tank with unleaded under the buzzing glare of the station's fluorescents. At that time 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.

"Sorry, no."

He didn't move away, though. Just stood there. So okay, he wanted something. 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.

"Got a light?" he said.

"Uh, no."

And I kind of wish I had one now, 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.

"My 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.

I didn't 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.

So I 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.

"Hand over your money," he said, his voice still steady, calm, his expression neutral.

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.

"Yeah, 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."

He didn't speak. He didn't move. He just looked at me.

I don't 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.

"I don't really need this money," I said, holding out the cash to him. "If you need it, it's yours."

He glanced at the money. Back at me. "What are you, some kind of Christian?"

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."

I continued holding the money out. Time pooled up again. Finally...

"Forget 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 shadows.

I returned 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 Fort Worth.

 

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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 somehow just stopped a robbery. I had stopped it without force or fighting or even fleeing. I had stopped it with nothing but my own power to choose, and as it turns out there is no greater power in the world. None. It would be many years before I could fully wrap my head around that fact.

The Stoics 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," I suppose.

Eudaimonia 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.

Except that 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 go.

There's a 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 could do so honorably.

It's all I can ever do, really. And that's all that matters.

W. 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.