One day, as I was coming out of meditation, I had a vision and an insight that rocked my world. As my mind began to stir, and I prepared to open my eyes, I saw the face of a kid I knew in high school. Tony.I hadn’t thought of Tony in decades! And here he was in my meditation room. I have learned to pay attention to these post meditation visions, so I contemplated Tony and got an potent and ass-kicking life lesson.
Tony was a Black kid in the same grade as I was, and he was a little unusual. Most of the black kids in our school were into hip hop music, and sports, and typical urban culture. There were street gangs in our town and many of the Black kids identified with the gangs. Tony was different. He was from a working-class family like many of the other kids, but he wasn’t into that culture. Tony was into heavy metal, and smoking dope and playing bass in a cover band. Instead of wearing the standard urban Black uniform of the day, Tony wore band shirts and spiked wristbands and skinny jeans and tall boots. He was taller than most of the kids in our class, but he wasn’t into basketball or any sports. Tony caught a lot of shit from the other kids – especially the other young Black males. I was a stoner, so I had a natural alliance with the metalheads. I knew Tony because I smoked cigarettes in the bathroom with him.
When I contemplated my vision, I remembered coming out after school one day to see a crowd of kids gathered around the parking lot of the school. Our highschool had a big parking lot ringed by a circular curb. All the kids were lined up around the circle watching and cheering. I ran up to see what everyone was looking at. As I got to the curb I saw that in the middle of the big circle were two young gangbangers picking a fight with Tony. They were pushing him back and forth trying to pick a fight. Tony was scared- his backpack was on the ground. Everyone was cheering for whomever they were rooting for. It was horrible, he was clearly going to get his ass kicked.
I stood there on the curb watching and really wanting to help him. He wasn’t my good friend or anything but he didn’t deserve this. The bullying progressed to the point where they started punching him in the head and face. I wanted to do something so bad, but I stayed right there where I was on the curb with the other kids. Soon they had Tony on the ground beating his head on the cement parking block. I stayed where I was and watched. Everyone did. Eventually the gangbangers left him alone, or a teacher came out- I don’t remember. They didn’t kill him but they beat the shit out of him and surely humiliated him badly. I don’t remember what I did after. I guess I went home or went and got stoned or something.
As I sat in my meditation room and remembered this story I realized that I don’t know what would have happened if I had stepped off that curb to help Tony that day. And I never will know.
I may have stepped off the curb and inspired 20 other kids to do the same and stop the bullying. I may have stepped off the curb and gotten my own ass kicked along with Tony. Stepping off may not have changed much of the outcome but made a big difference to Tony’s heart. Stepping off may have made a difference to the bullies. But…. I will never know. What I do know is that whatever would have happened, including having my own ass kicked, would have been worth it. Whatever happened, today, I would be glad I did it. But I will never know. The thought that I stood there and watched a friend get beat up like that makes me sick. It makes me feel shame and remorse and regret. There will be no re-do for that exam.
If your sword’s too short, add to its length by taking one step forward.
There are so many moments like this in life. So what can we learn from them? Surely it’s not just about feeling bad. It’s easy to feel bad and you don’t really learn much. I think it’s about learning to recognize the ways in which we are standing on the curb today. Often when we’re faced with a challenge, especially one that involves danger or risk, we choke and get paralyzed by fear of short term consequences and lose sight of the bigger picture. We lose sight of what and who we are. In this case, I was afraid of a whole host of short term consequences: getting beat up, being embarrassed, becoming an enemy of the gang, etc. It’s not like I thought it through in the moment. We rarely do. It’s just a sort of base fear and avoidance and paralysis. Many of us learn this behavior when we’re young. Our dads and other adult males probably model this kind of thing to us. As the years on the curb go by, a sticky, flabby habit of non-action keeps us living on the curb and out of the fray. But the fray just may be where we want to be.
Spiritual people will say that on a cosmic level, on the level of “God’s will” and destiny, that everything just flows the way it is “meant to”. I believe this, I really do. But on the ground it seems that what makes the difference when it comes to being awake and fully alive is what we choose to do this sort of moment. Do we go for it or do we wait? Are we willing to risk failing, or do we choose to be safe and not take the chance? Also I do realize that I used an example of something that involved violence. That situation was actually dangerous. It wasn’t like I was just afraid to speak up or share my heart’s true feelings. I am not advocating dangerous risk-taking behavior. Or maybe I am. That’s just it. It always feels like what we are doing is dangerous risk taking behavior. We will have to wade into the fray and see for ourselves.
The edge is a funny thing, the only people who know where it is are the ones who have gone over it.
-Hunter S. Thompson