The Courage of Nothing

I had the good fortune to interview Andre Dubus again on Tuesday when he blew through Seattle promoting his memoir, Townie (look for the interview in our April issue). In Townie, Dubus describes how before he discovered writing he was on a path of violence that would have landed him in jail or the morgue. He attributed the compassion necessary for fiction writing to his decision to stop fighting, both professionally and, eventually, on the streets and in bars. He could not spend the morning writing and entering someone else’s skin, feeling someone else’s despair and loneliness and joy as if it were his own, and then at night ignore someone else’s pain so that he could hit him. It has been twenty-three years since Dubus hit another person, and yet I could tell as I talked to him, and as I listened to him that night during his appearance at a bookstore, that a small part of him must be reminded that even though he doesn’t fight he is not a coward. I can appreciate this. When I was nine I was walking home from school with a friend. Ahead were two boys, both about thirteen, dressed in their disheveled parochial school uniforms. “Don’t worry,” said my friend, “I know these guys.”

Somehow, I did not believe this would help. As we approached them, the tallest of the boys turned to me and said, “Your gang want to fight our gang?” I didn’t respond. The question made no sense. There were no gangs, and he was twice my size. Plus, he knew my friend, didn’t he? Nonetheless, in the next moment, he was behind me, putting me in a headlock.

I can remember quite clearly the feeling of this stranger wrapping his arm around my throat. He was so much bigger than I, he felt oddly parental. It all felt pretend. And somewhere in me a voice said, “Do nothing.” Which I did. I didn’t struggle or complain. I acted as if it wasn’t happening.

And then he let me go. “Forget it,” he mumbled, and shuffled away with his other gang member, mildly embarrassed. For years, I would replay that moment, and in my fantasies I did something. I elbowed him; or I knew Karate and took him out before he got close. It seemed a braver boy would have done something, and yet my thoughts of retaliation never left me feeling any safer, even in my fantasies.

I hope to always choose the nothing I chose that day. That boy was inviting me to create a fight that didn’t exist, and joining him would have been like admitting a dragon stood along with us on the curb. If I had any courage at all that day, it was to not see dragon, to see through to the friendly emptiness upon which all life is created.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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