Many of us seem to absorb the Quaker culture of peacemaking without any specific training. Nor have many of us taken the opportunity to train ourselves to become peacemakers if a violent situation arises, and indeed you can’t really anticipate every situation you might face and rehearse your actions ahead of time. So we may find ourselves unwittingly and abruptly thrust into the role of coping with violence. When the occasion does arise, even in an unusual or dramatic event, we may nonetheless somehow find within ourselves the things that we have unwittingly absorbed or tucked away in our memories that allow us to rise to the occasion, to put this tradition of nonviolent action (and experience) to the test, and to succeed.
Our rural home sits above a small cliff created by an abandoned quarry. One afternoon, as I was working in the lawn, two shotgun blasts from below the rocky edge startled me. It sounded as if a hunter had flushed out a rabbit on the quarry floor. I decided to walk over to the edge and tell the fellow doing the shooting that he was hunting too close to a home, and would he please go somewhere else to hunt. But instead, below me I saw a pair of parked vans. Both front tires of one of the vans had been blown out by the shotgun blasts. A young woman was sitting in the open door of the van, sheltering a five-year-old boy. In front of her was a young man waving a shotgun, haranguing her, and periodically poking the gun in her face and the boy’s stomach.
At first, I thought, this can’t be real. When I got over the shock and accepted that this was taking place right in front of me, I immediately began to think of what I should or could do. Any number of scenarios raced through my mind: Call the police? Retreat to my home, get my deer rifle, and come out and somehow confront the fellow from above? Shout at him and tell him to stop or I’d call the police? Walk away because it wasn’t my problem? Go down to the scene and try to intervene? Then it really hit me like a splash of cold water: I was the only person around who could do anything to change the situation.
I discarded the idea of immediately calling the police. Their response time was problematic given the tenseness of the situation. I could also imagine a big gun battle if they came into the area with sirens wailing. If they confronted an enraged young man armed with a shotgun with a woman and a child in the firing line, it could lead to disaster. I concluded that something had to be done immediately. I rejected the idea of the deer rifle, knowing that it might also result in a gun duel, and besides that it was only a bluff since it was against my principles to confront force with force. Shouting and trying to shame or coerce the fellow did not seem likely to succeed. I considered walking away and ignoring the situation but immediately realized that I couldn’t—I was now emotionally involved and committed in this very tense and extremely dangerous situation. I told myself that it was my responsibility. I would now have to put anything I had learned about nonviolence as a Quaker into action and do something. But what, and how?
I decided to walk around the edge of the quarry and descend toward the scene of the confrontation, in order to allow myself some time to think. I had very little to go on, regarding the nature of the confrontation and the apparent reasons for it. As I approached, I stood just out of sight and listened. The fellow was claiming that the young woman had deserted him and was going out with other fellows. She was claiming that he was just plain wrong. Each disclaimer from her brought on another angry outburst. I heard her call him Andy. I remembered that I had been told that in a confrontation you should try to reach the person as an individual rather than an object, so knowing his name gave me a personal handle to use. The young woman called her son Gary, giving me another personal avenue of approach.
I slowly stepped into view and said, "Hello Andy, what’s the problem?" He seemed startled but not threatened. He clearly welcomed the opportunity to tell me in no uncertain terms about his pain and anger about her supposed infidelities. She countered by asking him how she could continue to love him after he pointed a loaded gun at her and her child, and besides that, she had not gone out with any other men. This exchange escalated as she directed towards me an equally forceful denial of his version of affairs. This point made him so angry that he strode over to her and hit her alongside the head with the butt of the gun. Clearly a debate about the validity of each other’s grievances was not going to calm things down, but it did make clear to me the nature of the conflict.
I decided to come in closer. There were two options: walk toward them along a little rise above Andy, or come in along the van on a lower level. Since the last thing I wanted to do was to have him feel threatened, I chose the latter. Here I was more vulnerable myself and less threatening to him, yet close to all three of them. Then I sat down on a rock. Here, I would not appear to be threatening to anyone, and my quaking knees would not have the chance to betray my inner state of mind.
Then it seemed appropriate to try to change the tone of the discourse: "You know, Andy, I understand how you would feel if your loved one deserted you for another man." I told him that I would be very upset and angry if my wife left me for another person. This got him to thinking about his feelings rather than the situation. He then began a long story about how he imagined her deserting him and how she meant so much to him and that if she left him he might as well go off and shoot himself because his life would be over and he would have nothing worth living for. So the problem really was about feelings rather than the aggravating situation.
Now with the suicidal element intruding, it seemed right to discuss that issue with him. I pointed out that things seem to heal themselves with time, and several months down the road things would seem very different, but that suicide would cut off any future possibilities of reconciliation or a better life. I also asked him how much he liked Gary and what this fight might do to his relationship with him. Did he want the little kid to be afraid of him?
About this time I began to realize who this Andy fellow might be. If my assumption was correct, he lived about a mile away. I had never met him, but from what I had heard of his home life his loving relationship to the young woman was probably the most important and meaningful thing in his life, and that his violent approach to this situation was absorbed from his father. I then began to help him discuss his distress at the apparent loss of the affection that had resulted from his broken relationship with this young woman and her child.
He was gradually cooling off, and he began to talk about relationships and feelings and the future. Our discussion, involving all three of us adults, continued in this vein for several minutes, sometimes tensely and sometimes calmly.
Suddenly, Andy became very quiet and a strange look came over his face. He seemed to deflate. Then he dropped his arms and lowered the gun, looked at me and the woman silently, unloaded the gun, put the shells in his pocket and turned toward his van. He got into it, turned it around, and drove away.
I have wondered since just how I had absorbed the "Quaker" principles that seemed to guide me through this confrontation and enable me to successfully defuse the crisis. It wasn’t any course on conflict resolution or training that I had undergone. It wasn’t a how-to checklist of handling a situation nonviolently that I had developed, but a gradual accumulation of insights that I had absorbed being around Quakers for the previous 20 or so years that presented itself to me as the events unfolded. You never know what resources you have, till you need them!
When I analyzed my actions later I boiled them down to these basic principles and courses of action:
- An individual can and should take the initiative to defuse violence.
- Nonviolence can trump violence—trust it.
- Avoid any approach or stance that might appear or feel threatening.
- Find a way to connect with the perpetrator as a person.
- Try to stand in the violent person’s shoes and convey that to him or her.
- Steer the person to look at his or her feelings caused by those events rather than the perceived problem or threat.
- Steer the perpetrator towards looking at the consequences of violent action.
Avoid being judgmental.
When I described this encounter to a person who had been trained in the Help Increase the Peace Program, a youth version of the Alternatives to Violence Project, I was told, "we call that process, and its outcome, transforming power."
The names of the individuals mentioned in this article have been changed.