November 15th, 2002 | Published in etc
After my initial encounter with the neighbor over her tragic car-backing skills, I did some fretting over what it means to be silent in the presence of people who are just plain inconsiderate. I mailed it off to scoop and thought better of it pretty quickly, but here it is in mostly unaltered form:
I just finished a book entitled The Riddle of Amish Culture, which is mainly concerned with explaining the numerous things non-Amish are apt to call “inconsistencies” in the way the Amish themselves interact with technology. Key to the Amish world view is a concept wrapped up in the German word gelessenheit, which means “submission or yielding to higher authority” but plays out in practice to “obedience, humility, submission, thrift and simplicity.”
It’s a hard idea to confront for “moderns,” because even though the Drews and Trixies of the world are obnoxious outer limits of individualism we all recognize, most of us are infected with a craving for “ours,” or at least a niggling concern that we face this world alone… our fifteen minutes and pieces of the pie contingent on our own action.
Indeed, I’ve never felt like a “real” Anabaptist (the tradition to which the Amish belong, along with the Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, and Hutterites) despite my family’s church affiliations with the Brethren, because part of the familial rhetoric on the southern fundamentalist side of the family was a fiercely paranoiac view that everyone around you is happy to alternately help, let, or watch you fuck up; and that success is a thing you have to claw from the grasp of the world and others, bought at someone’s expense.
In fact, those echoes are strong enough that when I’m confronted with injustice or feel like I’m being wronged, I joke that it’s convenient that cowardice and humility can be so easily confused. Underneath a layer of more and less digested King, Gandhi, and Buddha is someone raised among Texans who sometimes beat each other senseless at family gatherings. That, in turn, leaves me wondering whether my inaction can be ascribed to well-practiced Anabaptism and its attendant pacifism, or poorly practiced and cowardly red-neckism.
A paradox Ken Brown laid on me 15 years ago is that pacifism wields a rare moral power that diminishes as it’s adopted by cowards, so I’ve got to own up to cowardice when dealing with the likes of Trixie, because the moral strength of pacifism doesn’t lie in taking abuse all day long. It lies in accepting abuse and resisting it with humble appeals to one’s transgressors and, eventually, their sense of shame. It’s true that I don’t want to break “the peace,” such as it is, with Trixie.
But any foundation for my belief in Trixie’s lengthy stint in car abuse purgatory that doesn’t implicate me as their accomplice is tied up in the proposition that taking abuse to avoid the consequences of resistance is something the universe will reward.
As much as it would be convenient to believe that, I feel more compelled by the latter, because I accept Ken Brown’s assertion, as first expressed by Gandhi: “It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our breasts, than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover impotence. Violence is any day preferable to impotence. There is hope for a violent man to become nonviolent. There is no such hope for the impotent.”
I spent a few years of my life proud that no one around me could ever accuse me of cowardice. But until I’m on Trixie’s doorstep with a gentle, firm word about the harm of her irresponsibility, I don’t think I ever get to really believe that about myself.