I’ve been thinking about instincts this week. And how mine are fundamentally altered by my twenty-one year practice of self defense.
It wasn’t long ago that I congratulated a sister martial artist on practicing “kick-ass self defense” when she stood up for herself in a professional situation. I don’t know her well enough to interpret her surprise at that nomenclature, but she did sound surprised. I fear she shares the misaprehension that it doesn’t count as self defense unless there’s some kind of physical beat-down, or at least a physical threat. I hear that a lot.
Self defense is what we do to take care of ourselves and the people we love. In the very best cases it’s what we do before or instead of getting hurt. Lots of times it’s what we do in the midst of being attacked—emotionally, spiritually, sexually or physically. And too often it’s what we have to do after we’ve been hurt: the long road of healing and taking action so that the same hurt doesn’t happen again to ourselves or others.
Twenty-one years studying martial arts and self defense in a feminist, social-justice, anti-racist and anti-violence context has changed me. I don’t think like normal people any more. That’s a good thing.
It’s more than having had the scales taken from my eyes about racism in this country and my own white skin priviledge. It’s not just that I knew there was sexism in the media coverage of our most recent presidential race before Sarah Palin helpfully pointed it out. It isn’t even my habit of noticing and planning for breaches of security. Or my knowledge that secrets and silence do not increase safety, but diminish it.
It’s not just my belief that the responsibility for an act of violence lies with one party: the perpetrator. A woman ought to be able to walk down the street butt-naked and blind-assed drunk and not be at risk for rape, although I might concede she’d have some issues to address if she was making those kinds of life choices. Cold, lost and pukey might be appropriate consequences; sexual victimization, never.
It’s all of these plus my sense that all conflict comes down to two choices, each a face of compassion. The first choice is to yield, to follow the Budo wisdom of power in softness. Or in more Western terms, to pick your battles and let some pass. The second choice is to set your boundaries. Sometimes it takes the lightest touch to set a boundary; sometimes it takes a sledgehammer. Sometimes it’s a word. Sometimes it’s a fist.
And instinct. If there’s anything that twenty-one years of practice teaches me it’s to trust my instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s not right. No need to explain or justify, just act: leave, set a limit, ask for help. (To learn more about instinct in action, check out Gavin deBecker’s The Gift of Fear.)
And then there’s the pinko-commie belief that safety is everyone’s responsibility. That none of us is safe until all of us are safe. That means that sometimes we have to stick our necks out to help the next guy—or more likely, the next woman—be safer. We have to imagine a risk to someone else as if it actually affected us, as if we were actually part of an interdependent web of life. We have to be brave even when it’s hard or scary.
Today I read the update to the nursing home shooting in North Carolina that I’ve been waiting for since the story broke on Monday. When I first heard about the tragic death of elderly long-term care patients I thought of the facility in Connecticut where Grandma Dottie lived out her final days and Big Alice still resides. It’s always shocked me that anyone can breeze through the front door and wander the halls. Fragile, voiceless residents lay motionless in their beds, televisions blaring. How easy it would be to hurt any one of them, even without malice: to drop a cigarette next to an oxygen tank or to just bring in the ‘flu. And there’s no barrier at all to those with evil intent, no safety protocol. It’s a free-for all! I wouldn’t send my child to a school so lax in oversight; why do we allow our elders and disabled to be so vulnerable?
But the kind of malice that inspired the killing of eight people isn’t typically brought on by anger at an elderly relative. Which is why I felt a validation of my own instinct when I read today that the suspect’s estranged wife was an employee at the facility.
It broke my heart to hear who has apologized for the shooting. It wasn’t the man with the gun. It was the woman he was hunting.
She thinks what so many people think—that domestic violence is a private matter. That this rage, this malice and insanity of his should have been contained in the sphere of their domestic life. That she shouldn’t allow the shame and mess and danger of it to spill out and hurt other people. That it was her responsibility alone to face, even if it meant facing her own death.
But there’s another version of this story. This one says that there’s only one person responsible for this act of violence: the man with the gun. This version says that none of us are safe until all of us are safe. That it’s all of our responsibility to reduce the risk of violence in our world. This version is buoyed by statistics about the impact of domestic violence on business’ bottom line and the numbers of women affected by it .
Here’s the thing about an epidemic: it’s the very opposite of an individual problem. I know it’s the commie-pinko in me, but I gotta say: if thousands upon thousands of people are going through something—diabetes or domestic violence or foreclosure proceedings—maybe it’s not an individual moral failure. Or thousands and thousands of individual moral failures. Maybe there’s something deeply and profoundly and systemically wrong.
Like agribusiness and capitalism and patriarchy and the absence of gun control, for example. I’m just saying.
An episode of playground self-defense offered an opportunity to help Small listen to her instincts and step up to protect others this week. Yesterday Small and I were noodling around on the computer when she wrote this:
“I need help ceeping my friend Corey safe from Leo”
A lot of prodding led to this story: When Small and Corey run too close to Leo on the playground, he tells them, “Get away or I’ll kill you with a knife.”
Small said, “I think it’s a game because it’s fun.”
Then she said, “Corey is really scared.”
Then she said, “I’m not sure if it’s a game.”
Fortunately, we know Leo and his parents and we think he and they are pretty great. So we weren’t too worried about an impending playground massacre.
But the teaching moment was before us. My parenting instincts were clear:
· It was time to set a boundary: Threatening language is not OK.
· It was time to model what to do when we hear threatening language: We tell the grown ups.
· It was time to demand courage from my small, scared daughter. Silence will not protect us. We had to be brave and take fast action to help her friend.
Sweetiebabyhoneylicious called Leo’s parents who said they’d talk to him right away. Then they shared some laughs about his other recent antics, including public nudity. And we made plans for a play date. Nudity, threats and all, we like this family.
This morning Small and I talked to Miss Chris. Small was terrified; she hid her face against the fence while I finished telling the tale to her teacher. After school I got her back to the computer for another dialogue. I got permission to share our conversation here:
Small: I was scaird when Mama told Mrs Cris onLeo.
Mama: What were you scared of?
Small: I do not know. Can I plees get on my identady And play games?
Mama: Soon you can get on your identity and play games, yes. But first I would like you to think
about why you felt scared. It is my job to keep you safe. It is OK to feel scared, but I would like to know what you were scared of. Did you think something bad would happen?
Small: Yes.now can I?
Mama: Let’s keep talking on the computer for 15 minutes. (Sets timer.) What bad thing did you think would happen?
Small: I thot what Leo said was true.
Mama: Did you think he would kill you with a knife if you told the grown ups?
Mama: Oh, Small, that is sooooo scary! It must have felt very frightening for you.
Small: It did.
Mama: You were especially brave to tell when you felt so frightened.
What Leo said is called a “threat.” Sometimes when people make a “threat” it feels really scary and it seems like they will be more likely to do it if you tell someone. But actually, you will be safer if you tell the grown ups. Then the grown ups can do their job and take care of you.
These are the things your grown ups did to keep you safe:
· Leo’s parents made sure he did not have a knife. They checked to make sure he was just saying something that he didn’t mean. They told him not to say scary things any more.
· Miss Chris found out that she needs to keep an eye on Leo so he doesn’t say scary things and he doesn’t hurt his K-kid friends.
· All the grown ups figured out that it was just a game, not real.
· All the grown ups felt proud of you for being brave.
· Your parents gave you extra hugs for being scared.
Small: Can I have one now?
Mama: How do you feel now?
Mama: I’m glad.
Small: Are you done?
Mama: Do you mean, is this conversation done?
Mama: Two more questions:
1. Can I share this conversation with Miss Chris? It would help her be the best teacher she can be.
2. Can I share this conversation with other grown ups who might want to know how to help their kids be brave and safe?
Small: Yes. Yes.
Mama: Thanks, Small. Time for games now.