51: What Is the Higher Response?

51: What Is the Higher Response?

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive

What Is the Higher Response?

Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping him up.

~Jesse Jackson

I was having lunch with a friend one day on the pier in Geneva, Switzerland. A summer crowd was relaxing, enjoying the sunshine and the view of the harbor when a very large, heavily tattooed punk rocker dressed all in black arrived and started challenging everyone to fight. My friend and I watched as the people he challenged backed down or did their best to ignore him, hoping he would go away. He even kicked one person a few times, trying to force him to stand up and fight. We were at the end of the pier so we knew he was going to get to us eventually.

As the man approached us, it became obvious that he was extremely drunk. I knew then that it would be easy to subdue him if it came to that. I was heavily immersed in martial arts at this point in my life and held black belt rank, but I wasn’t sure whether to fight or to seek peace, as all true martial artists should.

The friend I was with was a peace-loving beatnik, a little like Shaggy from the Scooby-Doo cartoons. That’s what I liked about him, actually, but I was fairly sure he wasn’t going to be much help if I couldn’t find a way to calm this beast down. This was a chance for me to be a big hero by humiliating the bully who was terrorizing everyone. I would probably get a round of applause, a free drink or two, maybe even the key to the city from the mayor. However, a question I had begun to ask myself with increasing regularity rang in my ears: What is the higher response?

The drunken man finally arrived at our table.

“What about you two sissies, eh?” he slurred. “Which one of you wants to fight?”

I didn’t look up. He put his hand on my shoulder and pushed hard. Several dozen attacks went through my mind. It would have been too easy to hurt him, drunk as he was. He was painfully vulnerable. Then that pesky question popped into my mind again — what is the higher response? Or as some put it, “What would Jesus do?”

Knowing that the main thing a drunken man wants most is another drink, I said, “As fun as that sounds, I have a better idea. Why don’t you sit down with us and have a beer?”

Confused, he scowled and asked, “What?”

I reached into the bag of groceries we had with us, pulled out a cold bottle, handed it to him and said, “Here you go. We can be friends, too, you know? Come on. Have a drink with us. It’s a lot easier on the knuckles.”

He stood there reeling for ten seconds or so, trying to figure out if I was serious. People who were close enough to hear the exchange waited, transfixed by the unfolding drama. Would he take the beer or start swinging? Finally, he said, “Alright.” He took the beer, opened it and drank most of it one gulp. He started to walk away when I said, “You’re welcome to join us if you want to.”

He paused again and asked, “Really?”

“Sure,” I said. “Sit down and relax a while.”

We all sat quietly for a minute or so when I decided to push my luck and said, “So what’s going on? Why are you beating up all the tourists?”

He looked at me with a little fire in his eyes. I knew right away that I had gone too far. I had to do something drastic to defend myself so I broke out the secret weapon. I smiled. A big, cheesy one. It was the equivalent of going “all in” at the end of a poker tournament. I was either going to draw the ace or bust. He looked more confused than ever but gradually, wonderfully, a smile spread across his face, too. Then I really started fighting dirty. I laughed. Not at him but as if we had just shared a secret joke. He was probably starting to think I was crazier than he was. My friend and the others nearby were, too. But then something truly magical happened. He started laughing, too. There was a collective sigh from everyone present. When we stopped laughing, he got up and stood looking out at the sea for a minute or so. I noticed tears forming in his eyes.

I said, “Something is obviously bothering you. Why don’t you tell us about it?”

He sat back down and told us one of the saddest stories I had ever heard about horrific child abuse, addiction, untimely deaths of his loved ones, and all manner of mayhem. When he was done, he said, “Nothing good ever happens to me. Everything I love gets taken away. It just seems like I was put on this earth to suffer, like God hates me.”

I wanted to tell him that we create our own reality by how we use or misuse our minds, and that it’s how we react to the tragedies that inevitably befall us that matters, not the tragedies themselves. But I didn’t. There’s a time for philosophy and a time for listening. This man who had gone to such great lengths to look scary had become a lost child right in front of me, and I could tell by the depth of his emotion and the despair in his eyes that very few people were interested in taking the time to listen to him without trying to “straighten him out.” I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “Well, it sounds like there’s nowhere to go from here but up, right?”

“I hope so,” he said.

We sat quietly for a while. I wrote down my name, address and phone number back in America, handed it to him and said, “If you ever need a friend, you can always call or write.” He thanked me politely and walked away, quietly passing the same people he had been harassing earlier. When he reached the entrance to the pier, he turned around and waved goodbye, then disappeared back into his life.

To my great surprise, several months later, I received a letter from him. We corresponded for several years. These were the days before the Internet really took off and people still wrote letters exclusively. Our letters were wild, rambling exchanges full of expansive soul searching. I shared poems and stories with him that had helped me at dark and difficult times in my life. His outlook seemed to improve with every letter I received from him.

I don’t tell this story to attempt to take credit for how he turned his life around. He was the one who finally arrived at a place where he was sufficiently motivated to do the work. I tell this story to demonstrate what can happen when we act out of our higher nature rather than our lower instincts. If I had reacted in a violent manner to his harassment of me and others that day on the pier, everyone would have agreed he deserved it. But I am glad that I was able to show him that there was at least one person in the world who accepted and valued him, warts and all. I’m proud that I sought peace and won without conflict. And I had made a friend. A beating would have only deepened his anguish and further convinced him that he was put on this earth to suffer, as he put it. What he needed was a little compassion and I was able to give it to him because I asked myself a simple question . . . what is the higher response?

Many years passed and I stopped hearing from my friend. I lost the letters he sent me in a fire and his address along with them. But I always remembered his name so I recently looked him up on a social networking site on the Internet. It is an unusual name so he was not hard to find. That same big smile he gave me on the pier was his profile picture. I wouldn’t have recognized him if I hadn’t squeezed that smile out of him that day when we were both twenty years younger. It was a happy reunion, and I was very pleased to see that he has a good job, a wife and three beautiful children. He exudes joy right through my computer screen. Something good finally happened to him. God never hated him at all.

~Mark Rickerby

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