Unfinished situations run on in the mind, like a program on the computer that will not shut down, or the little wheel in the corner of the screen, turning, turning.
Writing a brief synopsis of an unsatisfying encounter sometimes helps one reboot. So, here is the replay.
The unsettling interchange popped up near the end of a Friday evening seminar on counseling at a key counseling center in Nanjing, an intellectually stimulating environment down the street from Nanjing University.
The room is packed with counselors and trainees sitting around a long central table. Other community people, coming late, pull up a second row, then a third, then stand along the wall. Two hours into the conversation, new participants are entering and jumping into the dialogue. Insights, observations, questions, discoveries, what an exciting group of therapists. We have strayed far from the original topic, “The formation of the counselor as person” and have moved to “helping people reconcile.”
Then a lanky young man, interrupting with a touch of belligerence, brandishing a notepad of crib notes in good English—takes the floor.
“Someone just asked when to forgive—I want to talk about when to retaliate.”
He looks around challenging the group. “You counselors advise others to forgive so they will find relief from their anger at being hurt. No! Real relief comes from getting back. There is a deeper, a far more satisfying relief to injury that comes from getting even. When I strike back and even the score, I feel a deep warmth inside, a feeling of power, and . . . and a great sense of relief. Don’t you agree that there is a time and a place for that?”
Oh my, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” What a moment to offer an alternative, to point out that returning injury for injury makes the reactor mirror the offender, perhaps worse. The offender may have acted out of pain that needs understanding but striking back is little more than pouring anger on anger.
Earlier we have talked about Jesus’ teaching—was he here when the group explored that—clearly that is not the page he is reading from so I answer question with question to get more insight into him.
“How does it help to do the same in return?”
“It helps me feel even.”
“How does it help to make yourself like the person who offended you? How will that help the other and does it truly help you?”
“Oh yes, it helps me, it gives me a wonderful sense of relief from all the feelings boiling up in my gut,” his gesture circles his midriff. Release, indeed relief, is what I need at that moment.
Thinking that he is a counselor in training, I try another tack, using the language that the group had been using comparing the inner parent and inner adult.
“As counselors, we find that responding to an angry person who is out of control by becoming a judging parent—a scolding father, a punishing mother—is a mistake. It does not touch the real thinking feeling-deciding part of the person. It is better to stay in a level adult-adult way of talking.”
“That is counselor talk. I talk from the feelings in my gut that are churning around. If I don’t, I lose. I want to win. I want justice.”
Ah, common ground, justice, perhaps that is a meeting point?
“Yes, justice is necessary, we seem to be talking about two different kinds of justice—“pay back justice, an eye for an eye.” What about a “fairness justice” that works toward mutual respect that honors both of us.”
“Yes, I suspect that we both want justice, and we do not agree on justice, what I want is plain and simple justice of getting even.”
We are back to the starting point and I am not connecting. Perhaps a story would work?
“Do you know of Martin Luther King?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Let me tell a story. During the American Civil Rights struggle for equal opportunity for all persons, races and classes, Martin Luther King was walking across a lobby of a large “whites only Southern Hotel when a young well-dressed white man stepped up to him and said, “Reverend King, I’ve always wanted to meet you.” Then instead of shaking King’s hand he hit him a hard blow in the face.
Martin looked his attacker in the eyes and asked: “Did it help you to hurt me?”
The young man is shaking his head back and forth, “That’s not my way.” He says. “Hitting back helps me.” Seizing the opportunity, he launches further into defense of payback in historical, political, and social situations. He is losing his audience—they sit with downcast eyes, His gospel of retaliation is not communicating. Is the gospel of reconciliation doing any better? He ends in praise of the American Revolution.
“You admire the American Revolution more than I do,” I respond, Everyone laughs.
“You are an American, why do you say that?”
“I look at Canada and ask if America really needed to revolt and kill thousands, then create a culture of violence that led to a civil war, and much more. I ask if there is not a better way?”
“What better way?”
“My friend, you matter more than any insult or hurt that may happen. You are more important than any injury. You and I can act in ways that end the chain of hurt and hitting back and more hurt and hitting back that goes on and on and on.”
He is clearly not convinced. But we have tried to dialogue, and dialogue does not mean we arrive at agreement. It can mean that we heard each other, respected each other, and said goodbye warmly, as we did when the meeting broke up.
And it may be the most important dialogue took place in all the listeners who entered the debate as we conversed.
But sometimes an unfinished conversation continues, I mull it over, all the way—the long train ride—home.