We are all in this together, no matter how we wish to be “other than.”
“The Art of Seeing,” by Michael Milton
I am, by most accounts, an affable guy. I’m also a big guy: Six feet four inches, weighing in at about two hundred and twenty pounds. I work out; not in a Thor wannabe kind of way, but I have consistent dedication. And though my gym time hasn’t produced a threatening physique, it has certainly given me a body that registers in others’ minds as “in shape.” I dress simply and conservatively. I don’t consciously try to attract attention out in the world.
I am not, in short, the kind of guy I would pick to attack on the street. And yet someone did assault me recently.
I was standing outside of a building, minding the door at street level, letting a slow trickle of people in for a meeting that would be held upstairs. I had volunteered for this job a number of times before without incident. I am purposely not mentioning the New York City neighborhood where this assault took place; I don’t think the where is germane to the heart of my story.
My assailant was dressed in a sweatshirt and a baggy pair of grey sweatpants. He was shorter than I, but bulkier. Could he have had a gun or knife concealed? Absolutely.
I have only recounted this incident for others a couple of times and the question immediately asked, after “Are you ok?” is “Was he…?” as my querier sought out some racial identification. I don’t think the color of the skin of my attacker is relevant here, either.
And if I could easily tell this without any gender ID’ing, I would do so as well. The recounting of the incident is ultimately about human connection and too much information can easily elicit a kind of convenient stereotyping which is definitely not my point.
I am, in the immortal words of Michael Jackson, a lover, not a fighter– perhaps, part of the reason I didn’t notice my assailant until he was almost upon me. What made him seem menacing, I wonder? He was, after all, smiling, but not in a happy to see you sort of way. Mischief engulfed his every move. He kept coming towards me until he planted himself well within my personal space; I could have kissed him by barely leaning forward.
I didn’t give ground. I noticed my pulse had risen. Still, I felt more confused than afraid.
Close-up, his smile cantilevered more towards crazy; not “off his meds” crazy. Something else. Hurt. Angry. Vengeful. Without a word, his hands come up to my shoulders and with considerable force, he pushed me backward.
I was shocked; shocked to be touched by a stranger but even more shocked by what seemed to be a stranger’s intention to provoke.
This doesn’t happen to men like me, tall men, secure men, well-dressed and well-fed men, men with good health insurance and future plans and a semblance of security. I was so shocked, in fact, I smiled in return and asked, “Do I know you?” sincerely thinking I might. This must be a joke, after all. Perhaps he was someone I had spoken with at the gym but can’t quite place. He didn’t answer my question but moved into the space I occupied just a moment before and shoved me backward again.
“Come on,” he said softly in an oddly pleasant voice. “Give me what you’ve got.”
Upon reflection, I wondered if he wanted money. But I now believe what he meant was, “Fight me. I dare you to take a swing. Provoke me further so I can have a reason to beat the living sunshine out of you or have you beat the darkness out of me.”
That’s what I think he meant.
He had by now pushed me out of reach of the door. Few people were on the street. It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving and folks were still returning home from the holiday. My heart was racing yet I continued to meet his eyes. I’ve been told I have a sonorous voice. Deep. Rich. Stentorian, even. And from far down within me came the surprisingly calm words, “You don’t want to do this, my friend.” He stopped. His smile wavered.
“You don’t want to do this and definitely not to someone like me.”
I didn’t mean “someone like me” who will have some fancy ju-jitsu moves to unleash on him. I meant “someone like me” in that “I am loved, I am liked, I am embraced out in the world and many will be unrelenting in their pursuit of you and unforgiving in their punishment of you.“ Aloud, I added, “It will only turn bad for you, whatever you do to me. You know that already, I’m sure.”
My voice surprised me. It was filled with terrible portent; I felt powerless but I did not feel helpless. I relied on the tools I had in my–for want of a better word–arsenal; my mind, my voice, and a vision filled with the sad surety of what the future most certainly would look like for this intruder if he fully carried out his attack. As unjust or unfair as his circumstances may have been leading him to this moment, the law would take scarce heed of those circumstances when sentencing him. My mother alone would see to that.
“Don’t do this.”
He hesitated for a split second and then took off up the street.
Days later, after the shock had worked its way through my system, I reflected on how in those several moments of our confrontation (and then for only the briefest second,) I did not make him “the other.” Perhaps my meditation practice had gifted me with the thinnest opportunity to identify him not as the enemy, but as me. Though terribly frightened my course of direction felt visceral and right. Whatever the source of his rage, I knew the bitterness of my own rage of late. Whatever his distrust, I knew of my lifelong struggle with a terrible lack of trust for most people. Whatever his need to prove himself, I knew of my own more subtle, but more accepted attacks to prove myself out in the world.
Is it possible he understood that I understood? I don’t know.
Here is what I do know; we are all in this together, no matter how we wish to be “other than.” The stuff we are made of, the pump that keeps all our hearts pulsing, the air we all breathe, the grave we will all share, we are all alike in the most basic and essential of ways.
Some great sage once said, We can only truly be as happy as the saddest person in the world, so intense is our human bond.
Perhaps 2018 will help bring our sameness rather than our otherness into greater focus.
I pray it so.
My best wishes to you for a healthy, safe, happy holiday season and new year.