I tell my friends world peace depends on my taking karate. I laugh when I say it — not just because it sounds preposterous, but to cover my embarrassment that I’m studying a martial art, and such an aggressive one at that. My friends might say this is out of character, for I’m a gentle man. But my good friends know my gentleness is at times genuine and at other times a cosmetic, high color on the cheeks of fear.

Fear has many faces, and the more familiar and bloody ones stare out at us every day from the newspapers and the television. But fear is there every time I put something between myself and another, between myself and me: the extra helping, which shows up as extra pounds, insulation from the pain of living; the door slammed on a memory, because like the wind it reminds me there is more to life than this small room, this coziness; the bluffing I do for a little approval or affection, dealing cards off the bottom of the deck I call love but which I know is fear.

For most of my life, I avoided fights, and the situations or places in which they might occur, not because I was a pacifist, but because I was afraid. Growing up, I stayed away from the tough Italian kids, and the tough black kids, even the tough Jewish kids — though, in our predominantly Jewish neighborhood, my friends were more likely to argue than hit. Later, I stayed away from the city altogether — and from my father, and his bullying: we argued, too, about practically everything. He was clever, and he was big — six foot two, more than three hundred pounds — and in the guise of making me into “a man,” he diminished his own manhood, and mine, teaching me not respect, for him or myself, but fear and self-loathing. He threw his weight around, to show me that my strength was no match for his — and I believed it, though I pretended otherwise, as I learned to pretend that boys no stronger than I didn’t scare me, though they did, and later that men no more handsome or intelligent didn’t threaten me, which they did, or that the world didn’t seem to tower over me, as he did, lips tight with anger, menace implied even if rarely displayed, and all in the name of love; so much for that kind of love. So much for the dead air of powerlessness stinking up the heart, turning me into a nice guy, with a splash of something sweet on the skin to cover up the old spices of dread, to cover a fear of being hurt — emotionally, physically: does it matter to the trembling knees?


A few months ago, outside THE SUN office, a car pulled up at a red light. There were two men inside and one of them said something — probably suggestive, probably insulting — to the woman walking by. Apparently, her answer wasn’t what he wanted to hear. He got out of his car, angrily, and started chasing her down the block.

Some of this is conjecture — I was in back of the building and couldn’t see well — but I knew he was going after her; whether to scare her or hurt her I didn’t know. I walked around front to see better, and to do something if I had to — but what? Call the police? By the time they arrived what good would it do?

I was relieved to see she was safely distant; he had turned around and was walking back to his car. He noticed me, though, and stopped. His stare was contemptuous. “What the fuck are you looking at?” he said.

I’d only been in one “real” fight in my life — in elementary school, standing up to Louie, the class bully, and getting beaten. The humiliation hurt the most. Louie threw me down, sat on my chest, and demanded I give up, which I did.

That night, my father, surprised I didn’t know how to defend myself, gave me a boxing lesson. One lesson, as I recall. But many times, we played another game: he’d put his hand on my head, hold me out at arm’s length, and let me swing at him — without success, of course. We laughed at this, and even now, I don’t think it was intended to be mean. But how often do we set out consciously to diminish another?

The encounter outside the office ended in humiliation, too — but without a fight. I just turned and walked away. I know there’s nothing necessarily humiliating in that; a martial arts master might have done the same — but for a different reason.

Fear sat on my chest, insisted I give in. The bully wasn’t across from me anymore but inside me. Like Louie, it demanded a high price for my safety. Like my father’s outstretched arm, it made it unarguably clear: there was nothing I could do.

What did it matter that I was in better shape than him? That this was probably street theatre, and unlikely to escalate into a fight? That maybe I had it wrong — perhaps the woman had started it with a racist crack? That I might have talked with him, or joked with him, nudged us off our positions into our shared humanness?

Forget it, said the punk on my chest. Forget choice. Forget the power of love. Forget everything but my snarl, my scrawny body that has you down, my knee on your heart, and my voice reaching into your past, slamming you against the wall of the past, the past you deny which is my refuge and my strength.


Deciding to take karate wasn’t easy. I knew, instinctively, I needed to learn to fight, but my combative mind kept raising objections. How could I espouse love and compassion while learning to punch and kick? What about Gandhi’s example? Or the inspiring non-violence of the civil rights movement? What about turning the other cheek? Was my own safety more important to me?

Of course it was. Don’t talk about God to starving men, Gandhi said. Feed them first. I was starving, too. For self-confidence. For a love of self that doesn’t rise on broken wing, to be knocked down by the first gust. For the sustenance I’d learned to live without, but without which I couldn’t really live — not fully, not in generous embrace of self.

To face my fear meant to face my fear. Not just to talk or write about it, not to read about the martial arts, or worry about finding the “right” teacher. There was a class two nights a week just a few blocks away — in an elementary school gym, taught by a third-degree black belt whose decidedly pragmatic approach left little room for my philosophizing; here I was going to learn to fight, or I was going to get hurt. And here I’m learning: getting hurt hurts, but I survive it; fighting isn’t hard, though fighting well is.

How important for me just to walk through the door (didn’t Woody Allen say eighty percent of life is just showing up?) — ludicrously out of place, exactly where I need to be: summoning the dragon from its lair. This changes everything. Instead of just being afraid, I become aware of specific dangers: a fist moving toward me, a kick aimed at my groin. And I respond. Not always “appropriately,” as far as classic form. But I act — facing the fear instead of avoiding it — and this parts the shadows.

In my teacher’s movements, there is a power that derives from focused attention, a poise that seems so “natural” when the body is relaxed and the mind watchful — this seems worth striving for. The energy and discipline involved in learning a difficult movement, practising it again and again until I get it right, is not unlike rewriting the same sentence again and again until I get it right, and makes me just as happy, and is just as much an act of love. Is this glorifying violence? I don’t think so.

What does it mean, anyway, for me to be “against” violence? It sounds good, but what about the violence in me? All these years of violence to self — who’s to blame for that? Not my parents, unless I blame their parents, and theirs — and where do I end up then? Who’s to blame that I’m human — not just animal, but not angel either?

I sit quietly, without the distraction of a television or a book or a sunset, without talk, without work, and see how much violence is here: raging desire, the high waves of ambition and envy and greed. It’s a hurricane, all right. And from the eye of the storm, I see also that “the world” is an abstraction; I project what I fear and call it reality.

“At the root of all war is fear,” Thomas Merton wrote. “Not so much the fear men have of one another but the fear they have of everything. It is not merely that they do not trust one another; they do not even trust themselves. If they are not sure when someone else may turn around and kill them, they are still less sure when they may turn around and kill themselves. They cannot trust anything, because they have ceased to believe in God.”

War, which everyone loathes, is how we live. The world is split by competing ideologies, and so are we — split from each other and from ourselves, the body split from the mind, the mind split from itself. We call across great canyons and only the wind answers.

Even the atom is split, giving us our greatest weapon ever against the pain of living.

There is no protection against the bomb, but there’s no protection against life, either. I know that whenever I look for guarantees against uncertainty, I become my own worst enemy, afraid to feel or to remember, an ideologue with iron fist, disregarding contradiction, paradox, possibility.

How can the nations not be at war? They are the sum of us. States of mind. We rail against the leaders, but that’s like banging our own heads against the wall.

World peace means the world at peace, which means each of us at peace. For each of us, the path to peace is different; for me, right now, it’s something as seemingly incongruous as learning karate; at other times, it’s meant facing other fears.

As I do, my world changes. Peace becomes real to me, not some abstraction that world leaders may or may not deliver. Denying my fear — protecting myself with the guided missiles of cleverness, the padded heart — sets me at war with myself, and the world. Better to say no to fear, no to war.

— Sy