Think about your personal experiences with the place beyond hope and fear. I’m certain there’ve been many times when you found yourself stepping forward without hesitation. Something in the situation called you into spontaneous action without calculating costs and benefits. This is the definition of courage—actions that spring from an open heart without premeditation. (The word courage comes from the old French word for “heart.”) Sometimes these spontaneous actions are good; sometimes they get us into a lot of trouble; sometimes people lose their lives rushing in to save others. What’s important to notice in your experience is how it felt to be fearless. You were also hopeless. You did what had to be done as it appeared in that moment. You weren’t thinking of outcomes, and you had more than enough energy.  

(Margaret Wheatley)

Mike had seen better, and much worse, days.  He was a familiar presence in the neighborhood we both called home.  He lived in one of the SROs – Single Room Occupancy – buildings – what used to be called a boarding house or flophouse.  He was one of several local personalities who had been a long-term in the local psychiatric hospital, placed there as a teenager, whether for true psychiatric reasons or perhaps for developmental disability reasons, living there for decades, then released in the 1980s during the era of de-institutionalization.

I think it’s fair, though perhaps not kind, to say that he looked odd.  Perhaps even intimidating if you didn’t know him.  He had never hurt anyone.  He was mostly quiet – not like Geography Jerry, who had a similar backstory and asked the same geography riddles over and over.  Sometimes Mike hitchhiked from the Main Street to the village, which is how I got to know him just a little.  Though I gave him a handful of rides over the years, I don’t think I ever became familiar to him.  But he did to me.  Familiar and appreciated.

One time, when my kids were still in elementary school, we rode our bikes to the local soft serve ice cream joint.  I noticed Mike in an unexpected circumstance: wielding his large flashlight in a menacing manner at three kids – middle schoolers, I’d say.  I’d seen the flashlight before – you never saw Mike without it – but it was usually in his back pocket.

I told my kids to stay put – out of harm’s way – then approached Mike. Not sure what to do, I knew something needed to be done, and quick. I couldn’t tell what was going on, but I did not want him to hit the kids.  That would be all kinds of bad. I moved closer cautiously, my heart beating hard in my chest, keeping a cool distance from the heavy object in his hand.  Calmly, gently, I asked, “Hey, Mike.  What’s up?  Something seems wrong.” 

Cutting to the chase: no one got hit or hurt.  Mike kept his flashlight.  The three middle schoolers got a mild tongue lashing from me. It turned out that those kids had been taunting Mike – he was an easy target for bullies, even ones much smaller than he.  They had tried to take his cherished flashlight.  Mike responded fiercely, protectively, defensively.  I can’t say that I blame him. So, I even had a semi-maternal conversation with Mike about potential consequences of his choices.   

It taught me two things:

  • I’m braver than I think I’ll be when the moment demands it. 
  • Situations aren’t always what they seem.

In this case, my first impression was that Mike was the aggressor.  Not true. 

It has helped me to understand that in other situations, say, when a Black kid hits a white kid first, it’s important to listen and find out more. It’s just possible — and in some situations, likely — that the white kid (whispered loud enough only for the Black kid to hear) said the n-word first.  If so, it changes who the aggressor is and who needs an ally to intervene.