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I do not wish to imply that I am something I am not. I am not a saint—far from it in fact. But I have never tell the truth ever been in a fight. As in fisticuffs, hurled insults, arms in a flay.
Which is not to suggest that I am of perfect, even temper, or to turn the other cheek, altogether foreign to confrontation and a coward. As most I have my shameful, deeply regretted not forgotten moments, moments I would prefer to remember as exceptions rather than rule in any final summary of self.
Like the time, so long ago it seems almost a dream, all of eight years old and bloated with pride beyond caution from karate lessons, I boastfully challenged a playmate to mock combat and was judo thrown to the ground—pride painfully dented, lesson learned. A storm in a teacup from this distant, adult vantage, childhood ego bruised only slightly on grassy school field, but these are the pride deflating moments that haunt me still. Or to see them more clearly, teach me still.
It is with thanks that what uncontrolled, ill-disciplined acts I do own are buried in the not quite oblivion of a younger, less wise self, and the fact remains that I have never come to outright blows. Which alone may make me a pacifist via count-back decision, but ironic white feather aside I can admit to a few memorable tales of boys-own heroism and physical valour—certainly in my own mind if nowhere else.
At a school holiday football coaching clinic with a friend, both aged about nine, I quietly but not altogether stoically endued two days of taunts, insults and humiliations from a spoiled, obnoxious child one year my senior, several clothing sizes my physical superior. Far more outwardly composed than inwardly, I was equal parts rage and humiliation beneath very thin skin—a violent brooding which found expression on the final moment of the final day. Crossing a field to parents waiting, I walked up beside tormentor and friends and punched him as hard as able in the stomach, hitting and then running to conveniently parked parental get-away car.
Despite several peripheral to character moments like this one, usually spurred to action by strong sense of injustice but at times less, and often standing up for friends rather than myself, I grew up with a deeply held aversion to violence.
I have always been a disgusted bystander to fights, sometimes a peacemaker as well. I notice keenly how foolish those who lose their temper appear, how invariably pride is wounded as badly as from any blow, feel almost as strongly as my own a loser’s humiliation and shame—sure price to be paid when temper and self-control are swung wildly to one side.
I have never been much of a gambler either. One methodical and deliberated in his actions—at least usually—physical violence has always seemed a far too risky, high stakes kind of wager; caution and common sense more often stays my fist rather than saintliness I would in confession say.
Still, despite many lessons yet to master, I am thankful to be well-studied, even graduated in one pre-requisite course of my humanity degree—an absolute aversion to physical violence.
While I celebrate the random and unexpected in life, conversely I am also a student of fate and karma, and take as fact that behind the appearance of surface, traits and personality are like a rock-face well worn. For a longer term, karmic approach to personality says that our dispositions, likes, dislikes and urges are the result of millennia of lifetimes.
Nature versus nurture? Both have a role, but both are determined by karma I would say. It is not true that a leopard cannot change his spots—he can, but it is unbelievably difficult, and in this I am speaking from personal experience.
“Reincarnation tells us that we have not come from nothing. Our present condition is the result of what we have made ourselves from our past. We are the consequence of our past incarnations.
“ ‘Many births have been left behind by me and by thee, O Arjuna! All of them I know, but thou knowest not thine.’ So said the divine Sri Krishna to the yet unrealised Arjuna.
“Evolution is the hyphen between what was and what shall be. I am a man. I must know that not only was I my father, but also shall I be my son. Problems I had. You had. He had. No exceptions! We faced them. We face them even today. But we shall solve them unmistakably.”
I may have an aversion to violence, but I do not for a moment think that it came from nowhere, or wasn’t painfully learned. I can almost recall, see through a misty veil pierced only by dream and déjà vu, the utmost regret of a self-caused, violent final moment, and don’t question that in the soul’s long journey through this world, I have had my share.
I’ve known very few injuries in this lifetime, fortunate in this respect or deserving I can not honestly say, which may be why I recall one accident very clearly: the first and only time I had the misfortune of impaling a limb upon a thorn—an outbreak of childhood insanity which saw me leap barefoot into a roadside ditch. At the moment of landing, of looking down upon sharp pain to see nature’s barb where only five toes should have joined, I felt an overwhelming sense of familiarity, a foreign yet recognisable memory of life-ending injury and maiming, a clearly heard phrase voiced within, tinged with a distantly grasped feeling of regret—“Not this all over again!”
“We have all some experience of a feeling, that comes over us occasionally, of what we are saying and doing having been said and done before, in a remote time â€“ of our having been surrounded, dim ages ago, by the same faces, objects, and circumstances â€“ of our knowing perfectly what will be said next, as if we suddenly remember it!”
Charles Dickens, The Personal History of David Copperfield
I cannot help but feel with certainty that those who take up arms blindly have since time immemorial departed this world in a bloody, painful state of contrition. And maybe something more than a moment, if one considers what may lie beyond death.
There is a story of my great-grandmother passing, in her final moments looking up and exclaiming that her deceased husband had arrived to meet her, and then in joy, other family members as well—“There’s May, and Louise, and Henry… they’ve all come for me!” Somehow I feel, even vaguely remember that when we leave this world in less than pleasant circumstances, our welcome may not be quite as happy.
My last ever non-vegetarian meal, a pizza with mince if you want the gory, bloody details, spells out my aversion to violence in the clearest possible way. Eaten well beyond my fill, I dreamt that evening of running through a slaughter house, splashing through blood ankle deep as random acts of violence occurred, absolutely mad, crazed people in the most disgusting acts of destruction, a veritable feast of blood-letting. And awoke to the certainty that it was the pizza, toppings of animal flesh only half-digested cause, cook and creator of dreams far from appetising. Still new to meditation, and at this stage self-taught, it took the dream-state connection of hungry feast with wanton destruction to ruin my appetite for slaughtered food, invoking by association the deep hatred, also sadness I have for man’s inhumanity to other man. And creatures less than man.
I had many dreams of foretaste and instruction when I began to meditate. I do not know why exactly—pure grace is one sure answer—but the fact that I kept a dream journal for several years encouraged their recall, although not necessarily special character in occurrence.
One dream from these pages stands out for it’s vividness. It is a dream of being in a desert, an observer of a large dune from a distance. From over one side and out of a long distant age appeared an army in turbans, and with long curved swords, clad in the flowing white robes of desert garb, running at maximum speed to meet an opposing force dressed in all in same.
The most appalling scenes followed as they clashed. I have never seen war in person but this dream alone was enough to know its true revulsion; men literally hacking each other to pieces in a ferocious, terrifying orgy of violence, bloodshed without rhyme, pause or reason; life or death not a matter of skill, honour or valour—not any of those romantic after, but usually before the fact notions of war—only pure knife-edge chance.
In the midst of the bloodletting the scene shifted again, to a modern age, a party of American soldiers making their way through a rocky ravine. Drawing back from the platoon revealed men dressed as Arabs, locals lying in ambush high above. The soldiers were picked off with rifle fire one by one, cut down without glamour or heroism as they ran blindly to and throe, trying to escape.
I do not know the why for these dreams, nor do I know the meaning or reality—if any at all—for such subconscious events. I do know what they meant though, and do still mean to me: an abiding revulsion for violence and war, and a deep sadness for the inhumanity of man, a sadness which I am certain is only a tiny fraction of that felt by our Creator.
Perhaps one daytime cause for this nightly play of imagination was the watching Ken Burn’s PBS Civil War series around the same time. Until this point unfamiliar with the American Civil War—in fact with almost all facets of American history—I watched without knowledge as to the why in fascination with the retelling of this most horrible chapter of the American nation, a deep empathy mine for the horror, sadness and insanity of a to me little known war.
In an age when war is still not confined to dreams—even better only nightmares; when the current smorgasbord of destruction is insufficient to satiate the craving of some, it is worth remembering conflicts bygone and their true cost.
In such a bloody, tragic vein I am reminded of a poem by Walt Whitman, first-hand poet and conscience to the American Civil War, written on the verge a four year trail of destruction that had little to truly celebrate, much to deeply regret.
Beat! Beat! Drums!
Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,
Into the school where the scholar is studying;
Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must he have
now with his bride,
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field or gathering
So fierce you whirr and pound you drums—so shrill you bugles
Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Over the traffic of cities—over the rumble of wheels in the
Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses? no sleepers
must sleep in those beds,
No bargainers’ bargains by day—no brokers or speculators—
would they continue?
Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?
Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the
Then rattle quicker, heavier drums—you bugles wilder blow.
Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley—stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting
So strong you thump O terrible drums—so loud you bugles blow.
And if that is too subtle or refined, still not vivid enough to impart the poet’s distaste for war or my own, let me try Whitman again, this time in prose and from the midst of the war, journal recollections from the peerless Civil War chronicle Specimen Days. (Note: despite being more than 150 years old the following remains moving even today, and is extremely graphic).
A Glimpse of War’s Hell Scenes
In one of the late movements of our troops in the valley, (near Upperville, I think,) a strong force of Moseby’s mounted guerillas attack’d a train of wounded, and the guard of cavalry convoying them. The ambulances contain’d about 60 wounded quite a number of them officers of rank. The rebels were in strength, and the capture of the train and its partial guard after a short snap was effectually accomplish’d. No sooner had our men surrender’d, the rebels instantly commenced robbing the train and murdering their prisoners, even the wounded. Here is the scene or a sample of it, ten minutes after. Among the wounded officers in the ambulances were one, a lieutenant of regulars, and another of higher rank. These two were dragg’d out on the ground on their backs, and were now surrounded by the guerillas, a demoniac crowd, each member of which was stabbing them in different parts of their bodies. One of the officers had his feet pinn’d firmly to the ground by bayonets stuck through them and thrust into the ground. These two officers, as afterwards found on examination, had receiv’d about twenty such thrusts, some of them through the mouth, face, &c. The wounded had all been dragg’d (to give a better chance also for plunder,) out of their wagons; some had been effectually dispatch’d, and their bodies were lying there lifeless and bloody. Others, not yet dead, but horribly mutilated, were moaning or groaning. Of our men who surrender’d, most had been thus maim’d or slaughter’d.
At this instant a force of our cavalry, who had been following the train at some interval, charged suddenly upon the secesh captors, who proceeded at once to make the best escape they could. Most of them got away, but we gobbled two officers and seventeen men, in the very acts just described. The sight was one which admitted of little discussion, as may be imagined. The seventeen captur’d men and two officers were put under guard for the night, but it was decided there and then that they should die. The next morning the two officers were taken in the town, separate places, put in the centre of the street, and shot. The seventeen men were taken to an open ground, a little one side. They were placed in a hollow square, half-encompass’d by two of our cavalry regiments, one of which regiments had three days before found the bloody corpses of three of their men hamstrung and hung up by the heels to limbs of tress by Moseby’s guerillas, and the other had not long before had twelve men, after surrendering, shot and then hung by the neck to limbs of trees, and jeering inscriptions pinn’d to the breast of one of the corpses, who had been a sergeant. Those three, and those twelve, had been found, I say, by these environing regiments. Now, with revolvers, they form’d the grim cordon of the seventeen prisoners. The latter were placed in the midst of the hollow square unfasten’d, and the ironical remark made to them that they were now to be given“a chance for themselves.” A few ran for it. But what use? From every side the deadly pills came. In a few minutes the seventeen corpses strew’d the hollow square. I was curious to know whether some of the Union soldiers, some few, (some one or two at least of the youngsters,) did not abstain from shooting on the helpless men. Not one. There was no exultation, very little said, almost nothing, yet every man there contributed his shot.
Multiply the above by scores, aye hundreds—verify it in all the forms that different circumstances, individuals, places, could afford—light it with every lurid passion, the wolf’s, the lion’s lapping thirst for blood—the passionate, boiling volcanoes of human revenge for comrades, brothers slain—with the light of burning farms, and heaps of smutting, smouldering black embers—and in the human heart everywhere black, worse embers—and you have an inkling of this war.