How do we learn to take decisive action?
When I was in the fourth grade, I broke a kid’s glasses.
I don’t remember much about the whole affair; I remember catching the football, but I don’t remember having the time to turn around. After that, the next thing I remember is lying on the ground with the sound of laughter fading back into my consciousness. Apparently, running up the sideline is not a good idea when the sideline is lined with trees.
Here’s a protip for people who laugh at others: walk towards them and join them as you laugh. That’s a sign of friendship and camaraderie. But these boys backed up as they laughed, like I was contagious—like I was a freak. As I found my feet beneath me again, I remember that I felt something in my hand, something that was made to be thrown, and I wanted them all to shut up.
A few minutes later, Andy was being escorted back inside. He might have been bleeding. But his glasses had certainly seen better days. I don’t remember much after that.
Fast forward to eighth grade. It’s the end of the school year, and a girl I know is wearing a sweater.
It’s early June.
She doesn’t talk about it—this is the Midwest around the turn of the millennium; some things we just didn’t talk about—but most of us know what’s going on. The thing is, we know the guy who was hitting her. Some of us are good friends with him. He plays in the jazz band, knows how to crack a joke and the girls like him.
Maybe it’s because I hung out with the older crowd, but I saw a lot of this well before I understood any of it. Because I wasn’t naturally inside the circle, I guess people felt they could confide in me. Maybe it’s just what I heard, or maybe it struck me on some deeper level, but what seemed to stick with me was what I saw as the evils of my gender: bullying, misogyny and drugs scratched the surface of what I chalked men up to be capable of. Yes, some of the stories were schoolroom drama, but I saw the bruises beneath the sweater sleeves, and suffice to say I was good friends with some of the accused.
At some point, some girl called me, “The Good One.” Enjoying the association, I cast myself as a white knight, swearing I’d never raise my hand against a woman. I practiced non-aggressiveness and compassion. I was a Buddhist well before I had a word to associate with the ideas I was trying to express. Mostly, I just wanted to show the world (that is, women) that men were more than all that.
Fast forward again. I’m now one year out of college. I’m the assistant to a stage combat class. The whole point of stage combat is to create the illusion of spontaneous violence (sorry to break it to you, that Jackie Chan stuff is choreographed) while protecting the integrity of the actors’ bodies. We have a significant problem in the class that keeps coming up over and over again.
The men do not know how to fight.
These are young, emotionally sensitive men and women who choose to write or paint or smoke away their anger. They have so little experience being aggressive that the very act of lashing out at someone causes so much inner fear that it’s actually unsafe for them to create the illusion of violence.
There’s a Hindu idea, ahimsa, which translates into “non-violence.” It’s an appealing, seductive idea. When confronted with the news of school shootings and Syrian rebellion, it’s easy to claim the moral high road by professing a vow of non-aggression. A counterculture that embraces ideas like ahimsa has risen, bringing with it a negative connotation towards acting on impulse, particularly when that impulse comes from anger.
But what if this kind of attitude is inadvertently causing more and more 20-somethings to sit by idly on their couch?
Our society has this idea that, by acting on impulse, we submit ourselves to taking actions that are “inhuman.” Look at what happened in Steubenville. I had to convince my roommate that those boys were human, because he refused to accept that humans could inflict that brand of injustice on another human being. What scares the left wing crowd isn’t the idea of someone carrying a gun—it’s the idea that someone carrying a gun then has the capacity to use it should their higher judgments fail them, and there’s very little way to predict when or if that’s going to happen—even with a background check.
I’ll tell you this from personal experience: even good kids can break glasses.
So instead, we have this new group of men, this counter-man, swearing off aggression and impulse entirely, in an attempt to reduce their destructive wake as much as possible. And maybe this is a good thing, right? What a world we could have if all men laid down their arms and meditated once in a while! But even the Dalai Lama has said, when asked about when violence can be condoned, that if someone is hurting you, maybe it’s time to hit back!
What if I was able to convince you that love, friendship, even the simple act of having a conversation with someone was a form of destruction—that, even lacking the intention of doing so, by simply interacting with people in a meaningful way, a person was effectively taking a scalpel to his fellow man and gently cutting away at him?
It turns out that when someone introduces themselves, they create new synaptic connections in the person they’re speaking to’s brain. New information, whether it’s a new face and name to remember, or—let’s say—reading an article like this one, causes a physical change in a person. What happens is basically a subtle form of brain surgery; it’s like reaching inside a person’s head and playing with the wiring. That’s why many self-help gurus will instruct a firm handshake and loud, commanding voice when it comes to introductions.
So here’s the problems we’re starting to see: on the one hand, we have young men like the two Steubenville boys not thinking about the pain and destruction in their wake. On the other hand, go back to those young men and women in that stage combat class I was assisting. So afraid they were of causing pain and destruction that, in their clumsiness and hesitance, they actually risked inflicting more pain and destruction than their committed intention towards violence would have caused. Yin and yang.
I know what it’s like. I grew up believing men were identified by using force to establish dominance, bonding to ostracize the weak and trying to drown their emotions with alcohol. I became so obsessed with not being a bad man that I scared myself out of being just destructive enough to be “good.”
Then, I was in a bar one night when a girl I knew from high school walked in. We caught up over a few drinks. And then, she confessed that something I said to her saved her life. I knew exactly the moment she was talking about: she had been holding a pair of scissors pointed at my heart, and me being the little ignorant country boy had told her something she didn’t want to hear. I had no idea how close I came to being killed that day. After that encounter, she checked into therapy, got some help and ended up going to—and graduating from—college. That thing I said (she reported) became a mantra that carried her through every time she wanted to give up, get angry and destroy something.
We all have that thing that we’re good at. With me, it was always words. When this friend told me my words had that effect on her, I was dumbfounded. I didn’t think such a power existed—the power to change people. I reflected over the times I’d used words to hurt people, or, as in this friend’s case, help them. I couldn’t accept the idea that non-intervention was always the best stance anymore.
The moral high ground is an ideal scenario, sure, but just by living in the world, we change a part of it. We can choose to do nothing; inaction is itself an action. However, the choice to not engage should be governed by the same morals as the different choices of how to engage, not by a “higher” tier of ethics.
This led me to define masculinity as this: “The ability in a person to decidedly execute forceful acts with expertise.”
Maybe us counter-men should take more martial arts, firearms or yoga classes. Maybe we should look at our diets more carefully. Maybe we should punch pillows. I suspect there isn’t one answer that works across the board. But I do know that we must get better at violence. Because right now, we’re unsafe. Right now, a bad spike is like giving assault weapons to cavemen—or toddlers; the destructive potential is actually increased because of our clumsiness.
Anyone can use a club. Not everyone can use a scalpel. Even fewer people know how to make the decision to use that scalpel. That’s the purpose behind that word: “decidedly.” Good men can learn this from bad boys: that thing in us that wants us to break glasses, bully others and burn down buildings is the same force that let our ancestors live long enough so we could eventually come about, caused a group of colony leaders to declare independence and put a man on the moon. But we have to make the decision to use it. We cannot be afraid of it. And we must get good at using it, so when the time comes that we are ready to make that decision, we understand just how best to be aggressive.
Image credit: Rudolf Getel/Flickr