The story for Stand by Me was titled “The Body.” In both, one of the main characters, Chris, is killed while trying to be a peacemaker. He was in a fast food restaurant and an argument broke out between two men in line. Chris stepped in between them in an attempt to prevent violence, was stabbed in the throat, and died.
That scene was playing through my head as I walked toward the two men who were about to fight.
It was a night market in Maui, at the north end of Kihei. I had to pee and was lined up waiting for one of the three porta-potties. One of the potties had the green “VACANT” showing, but right next to the door was a man who kept opening it periodically to look inside. Anyone with a brain could tell he was a dad checking in on his kid who was in some form of evacuatory distress.
Unless that brain was severely intoxicated.
The drunk man was big. He walked straight for the door proclaiming its vacancy, oblivious to the line of people or the dad standing guard. The drunk man reached for the door handle and the dad held up a palm in the universal “stop right there” hand signal and said, “Whoa. Hold on. My son is in there.”
I couldn’t make out what the drunk man said but judging by what happened next it was not “Oh, my mistake. I apologize and will wait my turn.”
What happened next was that the situation rapidly turned to feces.
Whatever it was the drunk man said, the dad replied with, “I will knock you the fuck down.”
Everyone in line froze. There was about to be a fight. I’d seen this sort of thing unravel before. It usually takes a few more seconds of harsh words and perhaps a bit of shoving, but then it gets ugly.
A much younger James might have said, “Oh, this is gonna be good.” I was a teen in the 80s, and peacemakers were often frowned upon. Rather, I had witnessed reluctant combatants shoved toward each other. We wanted to see some blood!
And this drunken jackass posed a threat to the man’s son. The dad was justified, dammit. Knock that fucker down. Teach him a lesson. Be the brave and protective father-hero. Few will deny the righteousness of such valiant violence.
But I did not want to see blood, because I’ve gained knowledge and understanding since my youth. There were many scenarios that could play out in the next few seconds, few of them good.
Because people can die from a single punch.
Go ahead and google “death from a single punch.” There are countless examples. Often, the puncher goes to prison. More than one life can be ruined from a solitary fist to the head.
Or maybe dad breaks his hand. Have fun playing with your kids in the ocean on that expensive Maui vacation with a cast on. Probably comes with a hefty hospital bill too.
Or maybe drunk guy is good at drunk fighting, and dad gets taken down.
Or perhaps the cops show up and everyone gets arrested and jr. with the bum issues is traumatized by the whole scene.
Or. Or. Or.
Or maybe nothing. In those multiple scenarios, nothing is a great option. Probably the best option.
I walked toward the two men, hoping to do something that would result in such a nothing.
I approached slowly and took a position between them, but off to the side. I focused on the drunk guy, because he was the instigator and the one most in need of being talked down. I said a number of things about how there was no need to fight / It would be better for everyone if we resolved this peacefully / This is a family event and there are lots of kids here / There are cops all over the place and no one wants to go to jail.
In truth, I’d seen only two cops about half an hour earlier on the other side of the market, but I think it was the word “cops” that did it. The image of police and handcuffs got through the drunken haze and he huffed, then walked away.
I said to the dad, “Sorry that happened.” He was still seething and didn’t say much. I walked back to my place in line and one woman said, “That was really cool what you did.” Later that evening I told my wife and daughter about it. My wife said, “Did you use that same condescending voice when you were talking him down?” My daughter added, “Oh, I hate that voice!”
You don’t do this stuff for the accolades, even though there is risk, even though I had to put myself in harm’s way.
And risk is something that can and should be managed. A while ago I wrote a piece titled Be a Hero that told the story of my son’s partner, who put herself at risk to help a woman in desperate need. She did it because the consequences of not acting were dire, and she is a compassionate person who was willing to risk personal harm to save another.
When I saw the fight about to break out, I thought of that Be a Hero piece and figured, Well, time to walk the talk. To be clear, I don’t consider what I did overly brave compared to what so many others have done, but it doesn’t mean I wasn’t frightened of how things could go sideways.
As a writer, I live inside my own head quite often, telling myself stories, even imagining things that may happen and what I might do. You could call it a skill. As I walked toward the impending fight, I thought of Chris getting stabbed in the throat and therefore was prepared to leap back. It’s why I didn’t position myself directly between the two men. Being it’s the U.S., I also thought about guns, but calculated the risk as low since it was Maui and I figured this guy wasn’t packing on a beach vacation. Nevertheless, I was ready to grab the gun and his forearm, twist hard and fast, and hope for the best.
I don’t like violence, but I know a bit about how to do it.
There was no charging in without thought. There was plenty of thought. The “reward” for the risk was that I was certain there was about to be a fight, and if such combat resulted in devastation, I’d feel responsible for not trying to prevent it. I wanted to prevent such feelings of guilt.
When you look around and no one else is helping, you face a difficult decision. You must ask yourself if it will be you.
In so doing, consider the words of William Johnsen: “If it is to be, it is up to me.”
Positive Directional Tendencies
Since that time I’ve been reading more of the work of Carl Rogers, and it got me thinking about the drunk man, and that he was the one in need of help the most in that situation.
Rogers is the one who turned psychology upside down in the middle of the last century to focus less on patients as a problem to be solved, and more on development of a caring relationship with them that includes “unconditional positive regard” that allows the patient to “discover the strongly positive directional tendencies which exist in them.”
Rogers also wrote, “I have found it of enormous value when I can permit myself to understand another person.” I’m not a therapist, and it wasn’t my responsibility to sit down with the drunk guy and hash out his life story and show him unconditional positive regard over months of sessions and help him find his own way toward greater socialization through development of a caring relationship. But perhaps I could still help him by trying to understand him just a little.
And what I understood was that I didn’t want him to die, didn’t want him to get hurt, didn’t want anyone to get hurt, if I could realistically help prevent it.
Because I came to see him as not just some drunk jerkoff deserving to be knocked on his ass.
Earlier in the evening I was considering how a beer might be nice. There were plenty of food trucks, but no alcohol for sale that I could see. The night market was a family event. No one was drinking. And yet, this guy was hammered.
I don’t know, but I can imagine that he has problems. To be the only drunk person at an event where alcohol isn’t even present speaks volumes. In my writing I’ve looked at the tremendous negative impact adverse childhood experiences have on one’s adult years; it dramatically increases the risk of addiction to a host of substances. Perhaps he drinks because he’d been abused.
And getting punched out probably wasn’t going to help him heal. If I go through life imagining that people like him are capable of getting and doing better, it changes my interactions with them; it helps me be part of the solution rather than the animalistic imaginings of how he “got what he deserved.”
Like Carl Rogers, I believe most of us have positive directional tendencies, and sometimes we need help to move that way.
Finding Friendship in the Blues
Blues musician Daryl Davis is the epitome of stepping up and stepping into harm’s way to help others move in a positive direction. In this NPR interview, Davis, a Black man, tells of a chance encounter in a bar and how he began a friendly relationship with a White man by discussing the roots of rock and roll.
The man, it turned out, was a card-carrying member of the KKK.
The experience gave Davis a mission. In subsequent years, by forming relationships with Klan members based on the premise of “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” Davis has convinced over 200 KKK members to leave the group, hanging up their robes for good.
It’s an amazing story that must come with a caveat that we cannot request such emotional labor from most people. Davis is obviously an exceptional human being to take on such a task, but we can’t ask the victims of racism—or any form of bigotry—to be responsible for changing the minds of their oppressors. The onus is on the bigot.
The title “Put Yourself in Harm’s Way” is not a command. It’s something for your consideration.
Novelist and activist James Baldwin said, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
I won’t tell anyone to do anything, but will instead ask them to consider what they’re capable of doing, where and when they are able to step up, to help others discover their own innate positive path.
And it doesn’t have to be the Daryl Davis approach. Rosa Parks put herself in harm’s way with the Montgomery, Alabama bus incident. Referred to as “the mother of the freedom movement,” Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus in 1955. She didn’t try to make friends with the bus driver. She didn’t get chummy with the police officer who hauled her to prison. She fought for her rights as a human being.
In so doing she became a beacon. She drew attention to injustice, and many came to realize that such segregationist policies should not be allowed to stand. They were won over by her defiance and came to support the Civil Rights Movement.
The two men in the Maui night market were White. I’m White, and I know nothing of what it’s like to be Black. I have heard of this thing called “The Talk” that Black parents have with their children about dealing with police, but know nothing of what it’s like to give or receive such a talk. My friend Ryane Chatman explained to me that, “It’s not ‘The Talk’ in the same way as reviewing and explaining sexual health and practices. It’s an ongoing conversation. It is explaining what to do, what to say, and how to behave. In some cases, it’s about where not to go because the citizenry in some areas are prejudice.”
I never had to have those conversations with my kids.
I have also read stories of where a Black person tried to help, and was taken as a perpetrator by police and arrested or killed. I’ve read that story again and again. If I may dare to imagine myself in such shoes, were I Black man faced with the prospect of getting in between two White men about to fight, my reaction would be, “Let the White dudes punch it out.” Because the risk seems untenable.
But for me, being White, the risk of intervening was reasonable. It was reasonable because I have privilege. And because I have privilege, I have power. And because I have power, I have responsibility. (Credit: Uncle Ben.)
What About the Nazis?
I am not a pacifist. At the age of 14, I fought the boy who had mercilessly bullied me for months, and when the blood gushed from his nose and turned his white shirt to red, I rejoiced in my victory. More recently, I saw one of those culinarily grotesque videos of someone preparing a turkey by stuffing it full of two giant blocks of cheddar and coating the outside with “Flamin’ Hot” Cheetos. I kind of wanted to punch that “chef” in the face after witnessing such a travesty of food preparation. I mean, what had that turkey ever done to deserve having its corpse defiled in such a way?
I jest. But what about Nazis?
There are certain people you just can’t have any meaningful dialogue with. The latest revelations about just how fucking horrible Richard Spencer is should surprise no one, and I can fully understand the desire to punch this bigoted shit stain again and again. I’m not Carl Rogers. I’m not his therapist. I’m not sure there is any help for Spencer. Punch that fucker.
Or perhaps not. Hear me out.
As I mentioned, people can die from a punch. It’s not my place to say if he deserves to die (I have thoughts on that, but I’m trying to be compassionate here), but I’m concerned about you and the potential consequences of you punching Nazis.
You might go to prison. You might break your hand. There is getting in harm’s way, but there is also a potentially better way.
Richard Spencer is contemptible, so treat him accordingly. Instead of punching him in the face, perhaps kick him in the shins.
Get some sturdy boots, and kick him hard, right in the fucking shins. You probably won’t go to prison for that, but it still hurts like a sumbitch.
Not sure how much it will accomplish, but having Nazis be afraid to go out in public is a good thing.
Few Heroes Wear Capes
Don’t expect me to thank you for your service.
I won’t disrespect it, but I won’t gush about your sacrifice. It’s not you, it’s the military-industrial complex that sees fit to attain profit and power via an ocean of blood.
I’m losing some people because of this section, I know.
In the modern world, war is often a scam used by the elite as a tool to satisfy their greed and lust for power. While national defense remains valid as a concept, and some degree of militarization remains unfortunately necessary in current world circumstances, it’s been warped beyond all reason and glorified for the masses via the most insidious and nefarious propaganda campaign in human history, resulting in war without end.
Top Gun is one of the most popular movies of the 20th century, and it’s a two-hour recruitment ad for the U.S. Navy. The reason why the Navy was so forthcoming with expensive military hardware for the filming was because they had script approval. The Navy even set up recruiting booths in cinemas where it was showing to capitalize on all the gung ho young men walking out of the theatre. And the campaign worked, resulting in a 500% increase in recruits wanting to be Naval Aviators.
Insidious, and nefarious.
A hero isn’t just someone in a uniform. Society lauds those who use violence in the name of a cause we deem righteous, but that’s a narrow definition of heroism. A hero is anyone who steps up to help when their help is needed. Because giving help costs.
There may be risk. There may be pain. There may merely be inconvenience. But when you “give help” you give, and giving means sacrifice. It means leaving behind a comfortable doing nothing to do an uncomfortable something.
I’m not one to get bent out of shape when someone says, “No problem” rather than “You’re welcome,” but will admit to preferring the latter. I prefer it because I want people to know that they are welcome to my help, because they are a fellow human in need, and they are worthy. It wasn’t “no problem.” It cost me, but I did it anyway, happily, and hope that they will do the same for someone else when the time comes.
It cost me, but it paid me back knowing I did what I could rather than stood by, remained silent, didn’t help. I’m not sure how good we are at pure altruism, doing good solely because it’s right. Ayn Rand said altruism doesn’t exist, but who cares what she thinks?
Lots of bad shit in the world. We’ve come a ways, but have far yet to go. Improving the situation involves risk, involves giving, involves being the one who steps up when others don’t.
People step up because it’s who they are. University of Rochester psychology professor and co-founder of self-determination theory Edward Deci wrote in his book Why We Do What We Do about the important distinction between behavior that is autonomous, and behavior that is controlled. If you decide to step up because James Fell tells you to, that’s controlled, that’s you feeling pressured. It’s also inauthentic, and therefore unsustainable. Conversely, the autonomously motivated are “fully willing to do what they are doing, and they embrace the activity with a sense of interest and commitment. Their actions emanate from their true sense of self, so they are being authentic.”
To find the courage to step up, it must “emanate” from your “true sense of self.” It must be who you are.
Who are you?
Be a Beacon
Rosa was seated at the front of the “Colored Section” of the bus. But when more Whites got on the bus than were seats available in the “White Section,” the bus driver moved the sign for the Colored Section further back and told her and three other Black people to move to the re-designated Colored Section. The others complied, Rosa did not.
Years later Rosa said in an interview, “When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.” Such a comforting cover of rightness comes from being authentic, emanating from a true sense of self. This is the sensation that drives people to do good, even though they may face a personal cost.
In refusing to get up, Rosa stepped up, and changed the world for the better.
But there is something you likely don’t understand about this story. I didn’t, until Ryane explained it to me. She said of Black women, “We shoulder the brunt of the emotional, financial, and physical labor when it comes to civil activism. We step up regardless of the cost, the harm, the danger. This has been the way in the U.S. particularly, since, well, slavery.”
For too long people have looked to others to shoulder the burdens of change. The privileged benefit from the status quo and see little reason to make efforts at altering it. But if you are capable of changing yourself first to become a person where stepping up and even putting yourself in harm’s way emanates from your authentic self, then you too can be a beacon for positive change in the world.
If you have privilege, use it for good. If there is a wrong in need of righting, right it. If there is aid in need of being given, give it.
Because who will it be if not you?
Who will it be?
My new book THE HOLY SH!T MOMENT, is now available. GET IT HERE!
James S. Fell, MA, MBA, has bylines in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, the Guardian, TIME Magazine, and many other publications. His blog has millions of readers and he is the author of two books: The Holy Sh!t Moment: How Lasting Change Can Happen in an Instant (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), and Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind (Random House Canada, 2014). Order them here.
Image credit: Charlie Cole