Note: Though I originally wrote this in 2012, it’s turned out to be a timeless reminder that is even more appropriate today.
I was walking toward a store, thinking the everyday thoughts we immerse ourselves in when we tread familiar ground, blindly, when I suddenly became aware of the person in front of me, coming out the door. We were uncomfortably far apart, that is, I was not close enough to catch the door upon his exit but also too far to make holding it open obvious and easy. We were both caught in that awkward no man’s land where the social dances don’t engage cleanly. I could speed up, and yet that would be kind of weird, as if I expected him to hold it for me. That would be assuming too much, a possible imposition. I saw the inner struggle on his face, which suddenly went calm as he stepped aside and stopped the door with his foot, waiting for me. I graciously accepted the gesture and thanked him, this person whom I will, in all reality, never see again.
And that small decision changed the trajectory of my mood, my day, and is still with me more than a week later. That moment, and others like it, larger and smaller, is what we’re here for.
How many times do I expect to hurt someone? The real answer is never, even though three times a week I entertain the idea and put it into practice, lecturing and teaching the physical application of violence, demoed in twisted, grunting forms. These are not the shapes and sounds of happy people, or direct good. It is, as I’ve said before, the failure of everything we love. And though I’ve devoted my life to it, I hope to never do it outside the training environment again.
So the opportunities for mayhem are thankfully thin.
But the opportunities to make peace, for being kinder than perhaps we feel, are many and daily.
This is the completely counterintuitive way in which I use what I know—how awful things could be—on a daily basis. Every encounter with a stranger is a potential murder. The concentration of such things in the media and our own tribal instincts tells us so. And yet, until I believe I have no choice, I must do everything in my power to steer us away from the shipwrecking shoals of petty ego, suspicion and fear and take us into deeper, calmer waters. If that’s too Zen-Hallmark for you, just consider how the small kindnesses, given freely and with no expectation of return, make you feel.
When I go out my front door the goal is to make it back again. And while I have taken precautions against the worst that humanity has to offer, it does me—and you—no good to spend that day living in fear. Train so you know you’ve prepared for the unthinkable… and then forget about it. Live your life free of the dread that perhaps brought you to training in the first place. In the short term, my job is to show people what to do in that worst-case scenario; in the long term my job is to ameliorate fear, to free people from it as this practice has freed me.
Replace that fear with knowledge: everyone is frail and mortal, so you might as well relax.
If violence is the failure of everything we love, then every day free of it should be spent reinforcing the things that make life good—look for those opportunities to make peace. A smile is such a small thing. Holding a door. Reaching out to help when those sudden, happenstance opportunities unfold right in front of you.
In a world where the person holding the door is seen as a sucker, where kindness is equated with weakness, it is a shocking thing to see the strong and capable make way and lend a hand. I didn’t need him to hold the door for me. I would have thought no less of him had he let it go. In fact, I wouldn’t have thought of him at all, ever again. And yet here I am changed by that infinitesimal act, inspired to write and share it with you.
Some days it’s easier to believe that the human soul is attuned to horror, that darkness is its resonant frequency. We are too quick to be affected by it, and the echoes linger too long. But those tiny taps of minor kindnesses can change the pitch—they just need to be applied constantly in order to reinforce.
So now, today, and beyond this season, make peace. You never know the circumstances of the person right in front of you, and how your conduct might alter the trajectory of their mood, their day, their week… and like a pebble dropped in a pond, ripples radiating outward to people you will never even see or interact with. But they may all be touched by what you do right now.
— Chris Ranck-Buhr