Turning Away Wrath

You have probably heard about Jordan Neely, the man choked to death by a another subway passenger in New York City because he was yelling. By all accounts that I have seen, Neely wasn’t doing anything violent, though he was certainly making others uncomfortable.

Elie Mystal provides an excellent account of all the issues involved – including race, mental illness, homelessness, and even the possibility that the man who did the choking, a former Marine, overreacted with violence because he hadn’t received enough care for his own traumas. Mystal points out:

But, to be honest, the racism saturating every part of this story is only the most obvious of its horrors. This murder takes many of the problems we have in our society and shoves them into a giant melting pot.

A lot of homeless people live in my neighborhood, many of them under a freeway and BART overpass a few blocks away, others camped in a nearby park. They are often rousted out and have to find other places to go. Meanwhile, there are vacancies in the brand new overpriced apartment buildings put up all over this area.

The people living on the street can’t afford those places, of course. Studio apartments start at over $2,000/month.

Some of the people on the street are mentally ill. Some are just very broke. I give a few of them a wide berth when I see them, but I have never felt compelled to attack any of them, even the ones who scream abuse at all and sundry. I don’t feel threatened. Mostly, I feel horrified that the richest country in the world does not take care of its most fragile people.

Before the pandemic, I was better at being compassionate, but the need to keep my distance from others for my own health got me out of the habit. I’m trying to get back to being kind again, though I know that a couple of bucks and a word is so much less than they need.

As I read about the death of Jordan Neely, I remembered a well-known story from the late Aikido teacher Terry Dobson, an American who trained in Japan with the founder of Aikido back in the early 1960s. That story too took place on a subway (this one in Tokyo) and it featured a very drunk and abusive man. It was entitled “A Kind Word Turneth Away Wrath.”

I first read it in a 1985 anthology edited by Richard Strozzi Heckler called Aikido and the New Warrior, though it occurs to me that I might have heard the story in the dojo before I read the book. It’s the kind of story that Aikido people love to tell.

I suspect from the title alone you can guess that the situation was resolved very differently from the recent killing in New York, though it was not Dobson, a martial artist then in his prime, who resolved it but rather an elderly and very traditional Japanese man.

Every time I read this story, I tear up.

I could summarize it here, but it is so much better in Dobson’s own words and I was able to find it online here under the title “A Soft Answer.” 

Give it a read, and then give it some deep thought.

We don’t have to live like this.

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