Life and death

So there I was, sitting in Rick’s apartment, talking about the possible responses to being attacked in a dark alley — just one little grape from the delicious cornucopia of tangents that frequently spills over during our conversations.  In this instance, our original discussion addressed some of what I’ve seen and learned in martial-arts training.

Background:  The three typical conflict-response paradigms are flight, fight or compromise.  That is, when faced with conflict, we can (a) find some way to escape it with a minimum of harm, (b) respond in kind, aggressively, or (c) try to find a middle path that does the least violence to the involved parties while maximizing the satisfaction of everyone’s demands.

Anyway, in the dark-alley scenario, the usual response from the victim is “flight,”  either by attempting to leave the situation through running one’s tail off, or by complying with the demands of the aggressors and hoping for the best.  But what if compliance is not an option?  What if the demand is for your money, but you left your wallet in the car and your back is pressed against a wall?

Thus arose the tangent: Can a person cultivate behaviors or arrange for experiences that might make the “fight” response more attractive or reasonable?

It’s an interesting question.  Yesterday, I had the great privilege of observing my dojo’s black-belt testing and award ceremony.  Four students (three adults and one junior) successfully tested to the black, and it was way cool to watch.  The board of black-belt instructors pressed the candidates hard.  One of the basic sets of stylized moves, called the Sanjin Kata, was part of the ordeal.  But it gets better — the candidates had to strip to the waist and were beaten by an instructor while performing the kata, and the students had to maintain perfect form and stance throughout.  The candidates were bruised, but they made it.  It was almost painful to watch, though.  And don’t get me started on the sparring portion of the test!

Anyway, one thing I’ve noticed is that the mere possession of certain self-defense skills doesn’t necessarily mean that a person will employ them successfully when the time comes.  A curious aspect of martial-arts training for self-defense seems to be that a fair number of relatively meek people train to gain self-confidence, but can’t muster the intensity (even during full-force-impact testing and sparring) to really respond well to focused aggression.

Perhaps the situation would be different if some of these people were actually placed in a dark-alley situation, with adrenaline flooding the body.  Perhaps.

But it does prompt some interesting ideas.  Like:  What sort of experiences could cultivate the right sort of disposition that permits the unfettered exercise of aggressive energy in a fight-or-flight encounter?

I’m not sure that mere training is sufficient.  I think that the best preparation for a possible life-or-death event is to have prior experience with life-or-death events.

Which, upon reflection, is really one of the reasons I want to earn skydiving certification next summer.  Not so much for the thrill of free-fall (although that certainly has some appeal), but for the self-mastery to choose to engage in risky or even life-threatening behavior and to learn the skills to deal with such situations.

Put differently … I think the best way to survive dangerous ordeals is to remain calm, cool and collected.  And even though training (in the martial arts, or in other areas) can provide tools and techniques to provide an advantage, true survivial is a matter of mental and emotional self-possession, of which the most effective means of securing it is to deliberately put yourself in harm’s way.  When you have experience facing your fear of death, then that fear loses its power to terrify.

A person who is afraid of death or injury will only survive a dark-alley encounter by luck.  Fear is a powerful motivator, and a necessary component to making it through the tough times.  But untempered, untrained, out-of-control fear is a liability. 

Consider the case of the dark-alley ambush.  Granted that the most appropriate response is dependent on conditions (and thus doesn’t lend itself well to broad pontificating), ask yourself what feels right:  Cowering in fear and thus increasing the likelihood of injury or death, or responding to the aggression with one’s own aggression? 

The bully or criminal mentality is based on power.  As long as evildoers believe they have power over a person, they will often turn that person in to a victim.  But standing up to the bully often inspires a fear response in him, effecting a turning of the tables.  So there seems to be some prudence in listening to Sun Tzu, who counseled that that best way of winning is to avoid fighting at all.  If having the courage to yell back and threaten an aggressor will make the aggressor flee, so much the better.

Anyway, my perspective on conflict resolution is shifting a bit.  Still got more to sort through.

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  1. I’ll let you in on a little secret that I’m sure you’ll eventually pick up on while in a martial arts activity. There’s a special kind of ki that exists that consists of building up power and focusing the entire body on one tiny space that you center, bringing your hands up to the center space and pushing that energy into the hand that you intend to use. Most aggressors have either a gun or a knife. When that energy is released through a powered fist, you have a massive chance of completely taking away the weapon or knocking it completely away from the aggressor. All other actions, such as feet sweeps, etc. can then be utilized to off center the person with whom you are in conflict.

    My first sensei once told me, “the greatest battle I ever fought was the one I never had to.” But then added, “however, let’s just say the one where I kicked a mugger in the face and threw him into the wall came in a decent second place.”

  2. I have been the victim of a violent crime. I was watching TV in my living room with my then two-year-old daughter when a man suddenly appeared (he apparently cut the screen on the bedroom window and came in–that he was watching is obvious, since I lived in a house on the back of a lot and he attacked after the man in the front house left). The attacker always has the advantage, because the victim is not expecting him(her). This happened 23 years ago.
    However, there was a different outcome about five years ago. I was walking to my car about ten o’clock on a week night after visiting a friend in what is considered a good neighborhood. A young, well-dressed man walking toward me said “give me your purse.” This time my thinking was quicker, I was carrying a book and threw it at him. He did slap me but I turned on him and chased him down the street! Obviously he was a resident of the neighborhood and saw an opportunity. My guess is that after he turned the corner he dropped into his residence.
    Generally speaking, law enforcement officers tell people not to resist. However, I am hearing on the news regularly where robbers have gone ahead and killed cashiers at small stores after they handed over the money. This may be the result of California’s 3-strike law–if you commit a third *violent* crime, you automatically get a 25 year to life sentence. So if you are going to get a life sentence, why leave any witnesses behind.

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