“Human nature is complex. Even if we do have inclinations toward violence, we also have inclination to empathy, to cooperation, to self-control.”
~ Steven Pinker
Last night my wife and I were out walking our dog, Cj. It’s the beginning of winter, so we were both bundled up in our warmest coats and gloves and boots. As we were walking, a teenage girl walked past us in the other direction, head bowed and shivering. Glancing down, we saw that she was barefoot, her toes red and raw. We turned around to chase her down and offer help. She asked to borrow a phone and called a friend.
It was 30° outside and she was dancing from foot to foot on the frozen concrete. This wouldn’t do. We led her back to our house a couple of blocks away, slipped a cup of hot tea into her frozen hands, gave her a pair of socks, and waited while she tried to figure out her situation, calling half a dozen friends and relatives.
Over the course of her conversations, the story unfolded. Her little brother’s schedule had changed and she had forgotten to pick him up. Her mother had become very angry and they had fought. She said that she didn’t want to be there anymore, and at that, her mother had slapped her (we could see that blood covered her sleeve where she had held a gushing nose), and pushed her out the door, shoeless and in only a light long-sleeve shirt.
I am not a violent man. I don’t actually understand violence well. I value all life. As an atheist, I see this life as all there is, so everything within it holds significant value. Of course there are atheists who don’t share the same belief. Violence, many would say, is an innate part of our being. Something we all struggle against, or embrace.
The first part of the eightfold path of the yogi is called Yama, and as Amanda puts it, “These are self-regulating ethical principles regarding how we treat others.” It is broken into five parts. We will discuss each of the five parts over the weeks, but let’s begin with the first. It is called Ahimsa. I’ll let Amanda explain it:
“First Yama – AHIMSA: nonharming, nonviolence. ‘A’ in Sanskrit is not, himsa literally means harming, injuring, violence. This is basically the Golden Rule…treat all life as you wish to be treated. With respect.”
I’ve been thinking about the girl from my story all day. A mother is supposed to be the one who cares about you the most. But to have that same person be the one who physically harms you seems to me to be a betrayal of everything family should stand for.
What scares me even more is that mother probably never in her life thought of herself to be the type of woman who would hit her child. Until she did. And then everything changed for both of them. Could I, who claim to not be a violent man, ever hit a child? That mother, I am sure, would have never resorted to violence, until she did. Humans can do such horrible things to one another. Is it something that is hidden deep within all of us? The thought frightens me. I am taking this time of considering Ahimsa to remind myself to be ever vigilant against such things. I don’t ever want to become a violent person.
In the spirit of honesty, we did something that worries me. After she left, we called the police to inform them of what had happened. We had been told that if the mother had been petty, she could have implicated us in a kidnapping conspiracy. So we wanted it on record what had actually happened, to cover our own butts.
But almost immediately afterward, we feared we had made a mistake. What if we had harmed this girl by calling the police? What if they found her and took her back to her mother? That was their job, after all. An underage kid wandering around at night? She had told us she was going to a nearby store where he aunt was going to pick her up. What if the police arrived first to take her home? I am afraid that in trying to protect ourselves we may have harmed her.
So maybe Ahimsa is more difficult than I had originally thought. Maybe just avoiding physical violence is not enough. Maybe we have to sacrifice a little bit of our security to make sure something bad doesn’t happen to the people we are trying to protect. Maybe we need to try a little bit harder, and think with a little more compassion. I am certainly going to try.
The girl turned out ok, I hope. We gave her a pair of wool socks and shoes and she walked out of our lives into the hands of a caring aunt. I hope that there are those around her who are practicing Ahimsa, offering her peace and compassion, and maybe she can begin healing.