Guatemala City, 18 Calle, behind the bus station.
The man approached as I was getting some street food. Three tear drop tattoos dripped from his eye. Tattered pants grease grimed, the remains of a shirt across his shoulders, a shiv stuck in the twine holding up his pants. In three quick paces he was right in my face.
“Que tal?” came abruptly out of his mouth with full assertiveness while he thrust his chest forward.
Immediately, I realized I was in a situation of direct threat to my survival. This guy appeared to have recently got out of Guatemalan prison and was facing a direct threat to his survival as well. What to eat, where to sleep, and how to protect himself. I didn’t take too much time to think about what to do… run, fight, die? NO!
In more nomadic times and cultures, when a stranger enters the camp of a band or tribe, and the band or tribe does not see the person as a threat, the first thing the band will do is offer the stranger some food as a gesture to welcome them and communicate that the stranger’s life is not in immediate threat.
So, there I was, a man possibly wanting to stick me in the kidney for a few Quetzal while I was ordering food.
BAM! I had it. The guy has to be hungry. Simple solution here.
“Do you want some papas fritas.”
At the moment of the question, his eye brows first furrowed for a microsecond, then rose. His eyes smiled as a grin peeled his lips up at the corners. One, two steps he backed away.
“Si!” was of course the response.
I looked at the woman who was cooking up my papas fritas and asked for two orders. She handed me one and the other to my new friend. The whole time he smiled, but also had an look of mild confusion as to why the scene had played out the way it had.
Three days later, I ran into him again. This time he had on a new pressed suit with a rakish hat perched on his head. He strolled toward the commercial district. He gave me a huge smile and nod from across the street. I guess he had gotten “back to work”.
We often respond from fear. Fear for survival: threats to life, food, water. The man I bought potatoes for was responding from a survival based fear from living on the street. I was about to respond from a survival based fear as well when he “stepped up” on me. When there are direct threats to an individual’s survival, the individual fights back. Yet, when the same things (life, food, water) are indirectly threatened in our modern urban societies, the response can still fear, but usually is not expressed as a physical fight for survival.
In China, there is the cultural concept of the “Rice Bowl”. The Rice Bowl is symbolic of what a person does in order to get food. In other words, their job. If someone feels their Rice Bowl could be broken (lose their job), the response is very defensive in many situations. These defensive responses can come from deep survival fear, though the survival of the individual is not directly threatened. This is where the situation can get uncomfortable, lead to arguments, hurt feelings, more indirect threats to survival and…..
Find the awareness of the humanity in each individual. Step out of your own head box for a bit before responding. Do a quick check of yourself and the other individual. Is there any indirect threat to either of your survival (lose a job, lose a relationship, financial strain, and the list goes on…)?
Maybe the tension can be diffused by realizing the other person needs some papas fritas for their rice bowl?
Do you know any ways to cultivate awareness of others in order to diffuse conflict? The Good Men Project would like to read what YOU have to say.
Email submissions to Wilhelm Cortez: [email protected]
Photo Credit: Getty Images