A Star of Superior Influence

August 1968. My friend Robert Armstrong and I picked our way to through unfamiliar campsites under the Pacific sun. Scout troops from all over Guam and from Japan had gathered for the first Camporee ever held on the island. Both eleven years old, Robert was African American; I was white, much as I am today. I don’t remember why we were on our way to the assembly area or what we were talking about. I don’t remember whether this was the day the monitor lizard invaded our tent or the weekend we got sliced up by sword grass looking for WWII artifacts. I don’t remember whether the rabies outbreak had abated or if it was still in full swing, but what happened as we entered the campsite of the kid with the axe remains vivid to this day.

Robert and I were talking and entered the campsite without realizing it. A white boy about our age was chopping wood with a hand axe. When the boy saw us he scowled at Robert. “What are you doing here, nigger?” he said. I froze. I’d never heard that word directed at another person and it just paralyzed me. But Robert didn’t hesitate. He stepped forward, extending his hand. “Hello,” he said. “My name is Robert Armstrong.” The muscles of the boy’s face went slack and the axe slipped from his fingers. As if rising of its own accord, his hand extended toward Robert’s. Never breaking eye contact, Robert gripped the boy’s hand in a brief handshake. Then we moved on, leaving the boy bewildered, looking at his hand, his axe forgotten on the ground at his feet.

Faced with genuine ugliness and threat, Robert offered the boy friendship, and to paraphrase Jonathan Swift, became a star of superior influence, drawing him into his own vortex. Robert did not retreat, nor did he escalate the conflict. In an extraordinary act of courage, Robert entered through the boy’s provocation and quite literally disarmed him with a word and a gesture.

I’m not suggesting that if that kid actually swung his axe at Robert’s head, Robert’s actions would have stopped it. Robert had courage and grace, but he wasn’t a Jedi, and for all his belligerence that kid wasn’t going to physically strike Robert with that axe. The assault was psychological, verbally caustic, and directed at Robert’s spirit. Robert’s answer was to direct his own spirit in an act of power and kindness and clear intent. Robert responded to the boy’s malice by looking him in the eyes and stepping fearlessly into the void that separated them. Robert rejected the boy’s invective and refused to be objectified; instead he asserted his identity: My name is Robert Armstrong. Axe Boy was mindlessly acting out a racist imperative like a kind of vicious sleepwalker. Robert’s act was a thunderclap, jolting him momentarily awake.

Nearly forty years later the memory still sends a chill up my spine. In that moment Robert showed me another way to be in the world, a challenging way to think about conflict and about being a human being. It came to me at a time before I had the maturity to fully grasp it, but it stayed with me always, waiting patiently for understanding. Robert and I never talked about the incident, but I wish we had. How had he experienced that event? What gave him the strength to act with such poise – to fearlessly step forward in the face of such withering hatred and offer his hand? I wish I could talk to Robert about it today. I wonder whether his life was influenced by that encounter, or if this was just one of many such incidents he faced as a black youth growing up in the 1960s.

And what about the boy with the axe; what did he take away from the experience? Was it a turning point for him? Did he remain on his path of pig-headed tribalism or did Robert’s actions plant a seed of transformation?

Their stories are now far beyond my reach. The only story I have is my story, the observer’s story. It’s entirely possible that my life was the only one altered that day. Observers can be as profoundly affected as active participants in events. A growing body of literature demonstrates that individuals living in hospitals, group homes, and other long-term care facilities can experience profound and enduring trauma by exposure to abuse and aggression, even if they themselves were not the target of the abuse and aggression. Although research on the effects of observing affirming or positive events is less clear, my lived experience is that these can be as instructive and influential. In providing supports and services to adults and young people with behavioral health issues our every act must be an act of integrity so in our actions we provide alternate visions of how to be in the world, even if we ourselves are not changed or the person immediately involved is not changed. In so doing, we create environments where such change becomes not only possible, but likely.

How did an eleven-year-old boy have the courage and presence of mind to make such an enlightened response to racist aggression? Perhaps Robert was precociously wise and his actions emerged spontaneously from some deep spiritual center. Certainly, Robert acted like one inspired. More likely though, Robert’s father, a man of dignity who held a third degree black belt in karate and who himself had experienced racial segregation and institutional repression, provided a powerful model for his son and taught him some effective, non-violent strategies for dealing with racial slurs.

I think the second explanation is ultimately more hopeful. If we believe that extraordinary people can make astonishing acts of power, what does that get us? We get to admire a special individual gifted with unusual insight and grace. What the second explanation gives us is the possibility that everyday people can help others learn powerful, practical, and peaceful strategies for responding to aggression, that strength of character and resilience can be nurtured, and that hatred can be effectively countered by kindness. I think this explanation offers individuals, communities, and nations a greater hope for peace.

-May 2006