"A Soft Answer"
September 24, 1999
A SOFT ANSWER
By Terry Dobson
A turning point in my life came one day on a train in the middle of
a drowsy spring afternoon. The old car clanked and rattled over the
rails. It was comparatively empty -- a few housewives with their kids
in tow, some old folks out shopping, a couple of off-duty bartenders
studying the racing form. I gazed absently at the drab houses and
dusty hedge rows.
At one station the doors opened, and suddenly the quiet afternoon
was shattered by a man bellowing at the top of his lungs -- yelling
violent, obscene, incomprehensible curses. Just as the doors closed
the man, still yelling, staggered into our car. He was big, drunk,
and dirty. He wore laborer's clothing. His front was stiff with dried
vomit. His eyes bugged out, a demonic, neon red. His hair was crusted
with filth. Screaming, he swung at the first person he saw, a woman
holding a baby. The blow glanced off her shoulder, sending her spinning
into the laps of an elderly couple. It was a miracle that the baby
The couple jumped up and scrambled toward the other end of the car.
They were terrified. The laborer aimed a kick at the retreating back
of the old lady. "You old whore!" he bellowed. "I'll
kick your ass!" He missed; the old woman scuttled to safety.
This so enraged the drunk that he grabbed the metal pole at the center
of the car and tried to wrench it out of its stanchion. I could see
that one of his hands was cut and bleeding. The train lurched ahead,
the passengers frozen with fear. I stood tip.
I was young and in pretty good shape. I stood six feet, weighed 225.
I'd been putting in a solid eight hours of aikido training every day
for the past three years. I liked to throw and grapple. I thought
I was tough. Trouble was, my martial skill was untested in actual
combat. As students of aikido, we were not allowed to fight.
My teacher taught us each morning that the art was devoted to peace.
"Aikido," he said again and again, "is the art of reconciliation.
Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection with the universe.
If you try to dominate other people, you are already defeated. We
study how to resolve conflict, not how to start it."
I listened to his words. I tried hard. I wanted to quit fighting.
I even went so far as to cross the street a few times to avoid the
"chimpira," the pinball punks who lounged around the train
stations. They'd have been happy to test my martial ability. My forbearance
exalted me. I felt both tough and holy. In my heart of hearts, however,
I was dying to be a hero. I wanted a chance, an absolutely legitimate
opportunity whereby I might save the innocent by destroying the guilty.
"This is it!" I said to myself as I got to my feet. "This
slob, this animal, is drunk and mean and violent. People are in danger.
If I don't do something fast, somebody will probably get hurt. I'm
gonna take his ass to the cleaners."
Seeing me stand up, the drunk saw a chance to focus his rage. "Aha!"
he roared. "A foreigner! You need a lesson in Japanese manners!"
He punched the metal pole once to give weight to his words.
I held on lightly to the commuter strap overhead. I gave him a slow
look of disgust and dismissal. I gave him every bit of piss-ant nastiness
I could summon up. I planned to take this turkey apart, but he had
to be the one to move First. And I wanted him man, because the madder
he got, the more certain my victory. I pursed my lips and blew him
a sneering, insolent kiss. It hit him like a slap in the face. "All
right!" he hollered. "You're gonna get a lesson." He
gathered himself for a rush at me. He'd never know what hit him.
A split second before he moved, someone shouted "Hey!" It
was ear splitting. I remember being struck by the strangely joyous,
lilting quality of it -- as though you and a friend had been searching
diligently for something, and he had suddenly stumbled upon it. "Hey!"
I wheeled to my left, the drunk spun to his right. We both stared
down at a little old Japanese man. He must have been well into his
seventies, this tiny gentleman, sitting there immaculate in his kimono
and hakama. He took no notice of me, but beamed delightedly at the
laborer, as though he had a most important, most welcome secret to
"C'mere," the old man said in an easy vernacular, beckoning
to the drunk. "C'mere and talk with me." He waved his hand
lightly. The giant man followed, as if on a string. He planted his
feet belligerently in front of the old gentleman and towered threateningly
"Talk to you?" he roared above the clacking wheels. "Why
the hell should I talk to you?" The drunk now had his back to
me. If his elbow moved so much as a millimeter, I'd drop him in his
The old man continued to beam at the laborer. There was not a trace
of fear or resentment about him. "What'cha been drinkin'?"
he asked lightly, with interest. "I been drinkin' sake,"
the laborer bellowed back, "and it's none of your god dam business!"
"Oh, that's wonderful," the old man said with delight. "Absolutely
wonderful! You see, I love sake, too. Every night, me and my wife
(she's seventy-six, you know), we warm up a little bottle of sake
and take it our into the garden, and we sit on the old wooden bench
that my grandfather's first student made for him. We watch the sun
go down, and we look to see how our persimmon tree is doing. My great-grandfather
planted that tree, you know, and we worry about whether it will recover
from those ice storms we had last winter. Persimmons do not do well
after ice storms, although I must say that ours has done rather better
that I expected, especially when you consider the poor quality of
the soil. Still, it is most gratifying to watch when we take our sake
and go out to enjoy the evening--even when it rains!" He looked
up at the laborer, eyes twinkling, happy to share his delightful information.
As he struggled to follow the intricacies of the old ma@n's conversation,
the drunk's face began to soften. His fists slowly unclenched. "Yeah,"
he said slowly, "I love persimmons, too..." His voice trailed
"Yes," said the old man, smiling, "and I'm sure you
have a wonderful wife."
"No," replied the laborer, "my wife died." He
hung his head. Very gently, swaying with the motion of the train,
the big man began to sob. "I don't got no wife, I don't got no
home, I don't got no job, I don't got no money, I don't got nowhere
to go. I'm so ashamed of myself." Tears rolled down his cheeks;
a spasm of pure despair rippled through his body. Above the baggage
rack a four-color ad trumpeted the virtues of suburban luxury living.
Now it was my turn. Standing there in my well-scrubbed youthful innocence,
my make-this-world-safe-for-democracy righteousness, I suddenly felt
dirtier than he was.
Just then, the train arrived at my stop. The platform was packed,
and the crowd surged into the car as soon as the doors opened. Maneuvering
my way out, I heard the old man cluck sympathetically. "My, my,"
he said with undiminished delight, "that is a very difficult
predicament, indeed. Sit down here and tell me about it."
I turned my head for one last look. The laborer was sprawled like
a sack on the seat, his head in the old man's lap. The old man looked
down at him, all compassion and delight, one hand softly stroking
the filthy, matted head.
As the train pulled away, I sat down on a bench. What I had wanted
to do with muscle and meanness had been accomplished with a few kind
words. I had seen aikido tried in combat, and the essence of it was
love, as the founder had said. I would have to practice the art with
an entirely different spirit. It would be a long time before I could
speak about the resolution of conflict.
Terry Dobson was a holder of a fifth-degree black belt in aikido,
coauthor of "Aikido in Everyday Life" (North Atlantic Books),
and author of the book "It's a Lot Like Dancing: An Aikido Journey"
(Frog, Ltd.), among other works. He died in 1992 at age 55. This article,
published in NEW AGE JOURNAL in 1981, first appeared in the "Lomi