I was nine years old when I threw my first punch. Twenty years ago, but I can still remember almost all of the details.
I was sitting in Room Three, at Cambridge East Primary School, on a chair—the Special Chair—that one student a day got to enjoy, while everyone else sat on the floor. Our teacher read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to the class and I relaxed in luxury while the other classroom plebs had to endure the cross-legged-on-the-carpet posture.
Suddenly, I felt a sharp prod in my back. Turning, I saw that my childhood-friend Jack was sneakily crouching behind the chair, and seeking to make my luxury a loathsome experience. As I would lounge back, he would poke me in the side, the back—wherever I wasn't covering. I squirmed with discomfort, getting angrier and angrier.
Eventually, the pot boiled over. I spun in my chair and swung a right hook that hit Jack in the eye.
Revenge of the Nerds
There was a shocked moment of silence, and then he began to cry. My teacher was stunned. I was the class nerd, more familiar with punching numbers on a calculator than dishing knuckle sandwiches. It was the last day of the term, so in a moment of educational genius, she let it slide. I was free from punishment and could revel in my newfound power.
Afterwards—and to this day—I am ashamed that I sucker-punched one of my best friends. Seeing a friend cry is never pleasant; knowing you caused the tears is even worse.
Enjoying the Power
Yet, for a fleeting moment, I enjoyed the power of the punch. I loved the shocked look in his eye, the recognition that I had won and defended my throne. I had controlled the situation. Deep down, this was a shockingly decadent experience. I punched a guy, and I liked it.
I've felt this same feeling in other times in my life. In my ongoing basketball quest to prove white guys can jump, I've had the occasional pleasure of rising up to block the shot of an opponent. The moment when I realise that I have won the battle, that their attempt is going to be swatted away—is a glorious feeling of power. There is always a glance at the failed shooter, communicating that I have won: I am superior.
The Sweet Addiction of Control
This mosaic of memories is all formed around my experience of power. From a nine year old's punch, to all the moments when I have asserted myself over inanimate zombies and—more disappointingly—people around me. All of these moments have had a sweet addiction to them.
In Philip Yancey's excellent exploration of Jesus he observes, 'Power, no matter how well intentioned, tends to cause suffering.' In its very nature, power lets one individual decide for others. The powerful get to say 'Yes' and 'No'. It assumes I know best. It assumes I have more agency, more autonomy, and more right than the powerless. Even when I choose to act benevolently, I carry these assumptions into each situation.
Lessons from Ernest
These memories bring to mind a story told by Ernest Gordon, former dean of Princeton chapel, of his first-hand experience with some captured Scottish soldiers in a Japanese camp, during World War 2.
Upon returning from a hard day's labour, the Japanese officer counted up the shovels the prisoners had to return at the end of the day. The final count was one short. One prisoner must have hid a shovel—planning an escape!
The officer was furious, and demanded that the group tell him where the missing shovel was. Silence. He pulled out his pistol, and threatened the entire group with execution, unless the offender stepped forward.
Suddenly, one of the soldiers stepped forward and confessed. The officer promptly holstered his pistol, picked up a shovel, and beat the man to death. Wiping the blood off the shovel, he recounted the tools—and discovered there'd been a mistake. There was never one shovel short, he had simply miscounted. And this soldier had stepped forward to take the blame for a crime that was never committed, simply to save his brothers.
Ernest, himself a Scottish soldier held prisoner in the camp, reflected that,
The incident had a profound effect. The men began to treat each other like brothers. When the victorious Allies swept in, the survivors, human skeletons, lined up in front of their captors... and instead of attacking their captors insisted: 'No more hatred. No more killing. Now what we need is forgiveness.'
A Foolish Love
This brave soldier's actions make no sense. To respond with love, instead of power, appears naive and pointless. Yet power simply reinforces the status quo. It continues the dominant story, reflecting the same-old-world back to our weary eyes.
Love opens up new possibilities. The possibility that captured strangers could become brothers. The possibility that violence could be met with forgiveness. The possibility that a poke in the back could be met with laughter and playfulness.
Philip Yancey's quote continues, 'Power, no matter how well-intentioned, tends to cause suffering. Love, being vulnerable, absorbs it. In a point of convergence on a hill called Calvary, God renounced the one for the sake of the other.'
As tempting as it is to embrace the story of power that the world propagates, if we want to see transformation in our lives, communities and world, a new story and a new response is needed. We need less impulsive punches and more second-nature hugs. Less mindless taking and more mindful, painful giving. Less lording over, and more serving with.
And then our eyes are opened to a new possibility, of a powerful love. A love that flips the world on its head, and truly recreates and calls out new life in all that it encounters.
Jeremy is a student and Innovation Consultant (www.creativate.co.nz) who can't really punch, but is getting better at running. He hopes this will be useful for future battles.
Jeremy Suisted's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/jeremy-suisted.html