I had originally thought of “vehemence”, but truculence, which has none of the better associations of vehemence and contains all the violence, cruelty, heartlessness and unyieldingness, conveys it better. Once you see truculence on someone’s face, it cannot be unseen.
I think of my father, whose mother affectionately called him “Sonny”. I picture looking at her through his indescribably colored eyes– hazel, maybe, a diffuse, pale greenish color like the sea in a certain stormy light, but always guarded so it was hard to make out any color at all. Those eyes, as an infant, had seen, too many times to forget, this little red-haired woman rising suddenly from her chair as a savage, whip-brandishing maniac. Not only did she brandish the whip, her face turned merciless as she vehemently brought the whip down on his babyish face, grunting and cursing and acting out an insane and unslakable rage. The pain of the whipping was only half of the pain, the other was that the mother who was supposed to be protecting and nurturing you was, instead, attacking you violently and as only an insane person could.
How could my father ever unsee this when he looked at his mother? He could not.
The role this kind of savagery plays in human life, it seems to me, cannot be overstated. How does a person kill another person (excluding self-defense situations) without having experienced this overwhelming feeling of betrayal, abuse, humiliation? It’s hard to imagine. Having seen the truculence of someone determined to do you harm, it’s easy to imagine why people buy weapons, insist on their right to carry them around, have no moral problems with war, torture, or any policy designed to kill, injure, starve or weaken potentially truculent enemies.
I was reminded of this truly vicious cycle by a dream I had the other night. In the dream a former friend was resolutely determined not to apologize, too niggardly, he admitted, though he also allowed that he owed me an apology. He told me that, considering he was being such an unyielding jerk about it, it would not be wrong of me to punch him in the face. I was unable to do so, each time I tried my fist would stop right before the moment of impact and just touch his jaw lightly.
Seeing me unable to punish him he laughed, mockingly, and began over-acting, the way a weak man goes about demonstrating what he thinks of as superiority. He may have said something unkind about me trying to be fucking Ahimsa-Boy, but whatever he said, that and the satisfied, sadistic expression on his face finally did the trick. I saw that merciless, unrepentant, provocative face and no thought or effort was involved– I punched it. Hard. The moment of impact was satisfying, but the moment after, quite bad.
It wasn’t so much that I had departed from my vow to remain mild, or that I’d given vent to a violent impulse. I saw I’d given him a black eye, and he was glaring at me, afraid and enraged. I pictured a likely outcome– an assault complaint, being fingerprinted at the police station, fees to lawyers, a long bureaucratic hassle for doing something I’d felt completely entitled to, had, in fact, been invited to do. I was angry at myself for letting my anger put me in this vulnerable position.
Think of human history. It is, as often as not, the story of armed bands of men attacking, starving, brutalizing other groups of people, taking their land, their livestock, raping, pillaging. How do people do this? It’s easy, it turns out.
We took a walk to a beautiful nature preserve built on the site of an ancient city and a fortress. The signs told the story eloquently. People lived here, built these walls to live in peace within them. In 490 BCE a violent group came, besieged the place for 36 days, sacked it, killed everyone they didn’t enslave and renamed it after their glorious leader. Next to indications of the year, perhaps a dozen or more times over the centuries, descriptions of the who and how the place had been besieged, sacked, inhabitants killed or enslaved, the name changed: glory to the victors. Romans, Crusaders, Muslim warriors, men of God killing for peace, paving the road to heaven with the bones of their faceless enemies, painting the signposts with their blood.
Hard to understand, any of it, unless we make it personal. Picture the implacable face of someone who has hurt you. Picture it trying to stare you down, make you turn your eyes away. It is a face you will not forget soon and, among all the faces you can imagine, probably the most likely to make you forget your vow to do no harm.