When I was a little girl, I enjoyed reading “Reader’s Digest.” I liked the stories about real people who did heroic things. (I still like these stories.) One story made such an impression on me that I remember it after all these years. The details are fuzzy, but the impact is fresh.
As I recall, the story took place in a Muslim country, somewhere on a beach. A local woman was walking along the beach in a tourist area with a male companion from America. The account of what happened was written by the man.
As they strolled along an isolated stretch of sand, carrying their shoes in their hands, they were suddenly accosted by a group of robbers brandishing knives. The thieves circled them and demanded their money and valuables, including their shoes. The man described his terror as he imagined his imminent painful, bloody death, and his helpless failure to protect his friend. As he fumbled with trembling hands to get his wallet out and remove his watch, his female companion drew herself up and faced the leader, who towered over her.
Her eyes blazing, she looked him in the eye and said, “You may not steal from me. Allah forbids it. I give you my shoes as a gift to save your soul. May Allah have mercy on you.”
I have no memory of why this big ol’ scary, knife-wielding man would want a pair of women’s shoes, but there they all stood — the robbers momentarily flummoxed by this tiny woman defiantly thrusting her shoes toward the leader.
Her horrified companion held his breath, certain it would be his last. After what seemed like forever, the leader lowered his knife. I don’t remember what he said to the woman, but he called his band of thieves away and left the two of them unharmed and unrobbed.
In a similar scenario, I read about a Tibetan monk who was crying as he was being tortured by Chinese soldiers. When one of his tormentors ridiculed him for his tears, the monk explained that he was crying out of compassion because of all the bad karma his captors were creating for themselves.
In a very different scenario, I walked into my living room one morning years ago and startled a teenaged boy I knew from the neighborhood. He had come in through a door I thought I had locked, and was standing there going through my purse. Fueled by adrenaline, I screamed at him to get out of my house. (I can’t print what I actually said.) He immediately dropped everything and ran out the door and down the street.
Emboldened by his reaction, I shouted at him from the front porch, demanding that he return while I called the police. When he kept running (what a surprise), I grabbed my keys and, clad only in my robe, jumped in the car and gave chase. Thank goodness he veered off the street and ran between two houses before I could run him over. To this day, I wonder if I would have.
He was caught soon thereafter and I testified against him at his preliminary hearing. I remember how angry I was, how much I wanted him punished. I’m sorry about that now. I’m not sorry he was caught, or that he brought legal consequences upon himself. I’m sorry about what was in my heart — and what wasn’t in my heart. There was no compassion or forgiveness, only a craving for vengeance.
Anger always masks fear. When I look through my rage, I can see how vulnerable I felt when I came upon him in my home, especially since I had undressed and only had my robe on. I was afraid he might have hurt me. Somehow I felt embarrassed that I had left the door unlocked and “allowed” this to happen. Maybe I even felt ashamed. My anger, on the other hand, gave me a feeling of power and invincibility, long after the threat was over.
Even when we are “righteous” in our anger, what does it serve? The heart of the woman on the beach and the spirit of the Tibetan monk were untouched by the harmful intentions of their attackers. Who, then, was truly invincible?