Kerrying On

Imagine

As a boy growing up in the 50s and 60s, I faced threats from all sorts of juvenile delinquents, “hoods,” and other shifty teenagers we now call bullies. Modern experts suggest that mid-century hoodlums were unhappy with their lives and consequently determined to bring a balance to the universe. They accomplished this by striking fear into the hearts of everyday students who were simply trying to make it through the school day without having their pants pulled down to their ankles, getting “pounded,” or otherwise being mortified and humiliated.

Given the number of JDs who walked the hallways at my high school, even a task as simple as getting to your next class was daunting. Should you accidentally bump into a fellow who was just aching to smack somebody, it could quickly turn ugly. In order to survive, I learned how to apologize (even when I was guilty of absolutely nothing) and then speedily slip into a group of large, athletic friends who might come to my aid should the situation worsen.

Unfortunately, hallways didn’t present the largest threat. The record for doling out abuse belonged to the athletic department. PE classes required students to bang into each other as part of the curriculum. This meant that not only did sporting venues provide the opportunity for thugs to separate a classmate from the herd and give him an atomic-wedgie or two, but it made a vicious block to the groin or a forearm to the neck not only sanctioned by the establishment, but worthy of praise. “Cool hit, man!”

Alas, this was all small potatoes compared to the grief dispersed in the locker room itself. It was in this “tile prison” that students were required to take a shower after every PE class. Mother of mercy. In my case, this meant that I had to walk through a group of guys that I would have given a wide berth at a church social patrolled by armed guards. Imagine walking—without any form of protection or hope for modesty—in front of guys who were just egging to beat up any twerp who did well in math. Think about it. I was required to walk naked in front of guys who carried, not “Esquire” or “Junior” as part of their full names, but who sported appellations such as “Snake,” “Knuckles,” and, “Butcher”—all words that ran through my head as I scampered to and from the shower in hopes of making it through unharmed.

But that rarely happened. At Bellingham High School you were pretty much guaranteed the minimum of a shower-room welt. The school was famous for its shower-room welts. Local thugs had learned how to roll a towel in a manner that turned an innocent piece of cloth into a whip. They’d roll it tight and at an angle—just so—creating, at one end a hefty handle, and at the other end, a tip that cracked like a whip. When the weapon hit your bare skin, it hurt like the devil and left a golf-ball sized welt.

Once you were smacked by the towel, to avoid further problems, you had to flash a smile that was normally reserved for someone who wasn’t trying to rip a hole in your flesh. In truth, what you really wanted to do was punch the welt-maker in the nose. This, of course, would have made you a lesser person and earned you a genuine thrashing. So, every weekday during the school year, my friends and I were forced to flash a fake smile at locker room aggressors—while apologizing to them for thoughtlessly getting our skin in the way of their snapping towels.

And now for the truly ugly part. All of this bullying and kowtowing took place under the guidance of PE teachers who lived by the philosophy: “Boys Will Be Boys,” meaning, “If an ambulance isn’t required, leave me alone! Can’t you see that I’m busy not teaching a thing and not monitoring the violence that’s taking place right under my nose? We have a football game Friday. I got bigger fish to fry!”

This walk down bad-memory lane comes to mind at a period in history when I feel like I’m spending a lot of time naked, in a locker room filled with bullies. Foreign leaders threaten to rain nuclear-armed missiles upon my subdivision. Snipers lay in wait in nearby bushes. Rage-filled drivers are aching to drive me off the road. It’s never-ending. And yet, despite mind-boggling advances in physics, engineering, and academics in general, as a society, we haven’t improved our negotiation skills or, better still, our ability to actually make peace one iota.

Scholars earn doctorates in negotiation techniques, consultants routinely teach conflict resolution skills, and gurus offer courses in high-stakes communication. And yet, fashioning peace out of conflict simply isn’t part of our national mindset. It’s not our native tongue. We don’t hang posters of Gandhi. It’s not the least bit popular to talk about how to improve our ability to make peace—not as long as we can form clubs that teach our kids nifty debate techniques that involve proving others wrong, attacking logical flaws, and winning points. These are all useful as methods for divining the truth and sharpening one’s logic, but bad when it comes to living with the vanquished afterwards. This is not meant to say that there are times when we should have a direct, clear, and strong response, but simply that, aggressive action shouldn’t be the only tool in our toolkit.

In honor of Yoko Ono and John Lennon, what if we did our best to imagine peace? Better still, what if we did our best to develop the skills for making peace. For instance, imagine what it would be like if we supplemented tools used for winning an argument with tools for coming to a common understanding. Imagine a world where people balance the skills for exposing others’ logical flaws with skills for finding a third way (common ground). Imagine what it would be like if creating a win/win came to mean you winning and me winning and not simply you winning twice. Imagine meeting aggression, not with a hasty retreat, but with tried-and-true techniques for respectfully resolving differences.

Best of all, imagine teaching peacemaking skills—starting in grade school. Schoolyard violence would be spontaneously and skillfully met with displays of mutual respect. Harmony would be taught not only in choir, but in every gathering of students. And most important, imagine what it would be like if your children and grandchildren didn’t have to take private sports lessons (the current welt-avoidance strategy) as a means of getting out of PE courses and avoiding the locker-room abuse that follows.

Turning schools into safe havens as well as centers for peaceful instruction is the least we can do for our progeny. I’m not sure where I read it, but I’m pretty certain that one of the founding fathers proclaimed that every citizen has the right to life, liberty, and the absence of locker room welts. In any case, I’m pretty sure that we won’t find peace in either the war or the board room, until we first find peace in the locker room.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

23 thoughts on “Imagine”

    1. Beautifully stated and I am so grateful you shared this blog! Perhaps this could also go to meetings where Unions rule the workplace and so do bullies. Thank you!

  1. Amen to your thoughts on a more considerate world where we truly start with caring for a fellow human. I’m fortunate to work in a positive, highly engaged organization where our culture is helping each other succeed and be our best is how we operate. This experience has helped me bring this to other areas of my life. When I’m feeling irritated in an encounter with a stranger while driving, in the service sector, I try to stop, take a deep breath, and apply the wisdom of a colleague who says that look at everyone as someone’s son, daughter, parent, or child who is cherished. In other words, humanize them first and you will approach the situation differently.

  2. Thank you for this profound piece on “peace.” Girls also suffer in the locker room and bathrooms of our schools – from “mean girls” who leave welts on the psyche and soul as often as the body – bullying but also gossip, fat-shaming, ability-shaming, appearance-shaming, shunning and more. This cruelty shapes us, and is as present in the adult world. Behaviors that instill the teachings of Peace, Mutual and Self-Respect, and inherent Self-Worth begin in the home, must be reinforced in our schools, and need to be demonstrated in the workplace. We need to demand these behaviors from our leaders – political, spiritual, temporal. But most of all, we each, as individuals need to do the hard work to lead by example. There are no saints, only flawed humans who demonstrated their journey in public to show us, through their own struggles, that there is a better way and hope. We must continue to “try” – and that’s not always easy. Thank you for your words of inspiration and reflection.

  3. Thank you so much for your thoughtful posts. I’m so sorry you and so many other young people have had to ensure bullying and abuse. You provide such important guidance on ways for people to come to a common understanding. I appreciate the work you do very much, and I too wish to imagine a time of peace and mutual understanding.

  4. Here, here! Wouldn’t it be wonderful? The problem is our society deals in ‘right and wrong’ — I’m right, so you’re wrong. Instead, we need to espouse that there is no right or wrong, just different, and honor those differences in opinions, culture, beliefs, etc. A smile and an “I see your point” in reply to an angry retort goes a long way in diffusing a potential volatile situation.

  5. The utopia you describe would indeed be wonderful. And I’m sure that the techniques you teach would help tremendously. However, I despair of the peace you seek until people can genuinely see others, not as others, but as fellow humans like themselves. Get that to happen, and the utopia you wish for could become a reality.

  6. I so enJoy Kerrying On EVERY time I read an article! Never disappoints and always leaves me wanting more. Thank you for your perspective, as always!

  7. Kerry, thanks for sharing your experiences. And, who wouldn’t agree with teaching peacemaking skills. I attended a military academy & subsequently in the army for a brief period. These experiences taught me well the unattractive aspects of male behavior when role models and discipline aren’t in play.

    We are in our 70s and have led exquisite lives to this point. However, we have noticed a great change in the civility of our beloved City of Seattle. 40 years ago, it was the most buttoned-down place we knew…

    But, I digress. My wife has a simple concept to improve the human condition: PRACTICE and TEACH good manners! Think about how we know a gentleman or gentlewoman should behave. Compare this with women wearing “* hats” and body part costumes in tasteless marches in our nation’s capitol or with thugs trashing the area around a building where someone they have ideological disagreements is to speak.

    Analyze true genteel behavior and, we think, it will teach us all we need to know regarding how to improve our daily lives. If only we could have a return of role models like Jimmy Stewart & Sidney Poitier…!

  8. I look forward to Kerrying On and have a deep appreciation for the Crucial Conversations training and admiration for those who had the wisdom to bring this training to so many. I am grateful for what the training has taught me about how to care for and deepen my respect for myself, my life and relationships. I am finishing my second round of Crucial Conversations tomorrow and can hardly wait to get back in the room. Thanks for all your work and the personal courage required to not only embody this work but to carry it forward for the benefit of others!

  9. Very, very insightful, but incomplete. You must use the “L” word to get to the truth of the human condition. To speak the language that your organization has blessed us with, It isn’t a lack of skill that keeps us from seeking peace, it’s a lack of heart. We are born with original sin, and the only way to overcome that is to speak truth, with love. And that truth (and love) is Jesus Christ, our savior. We do live in very, very scary times, where even our neighbor next door means us harm if we don’t see the world just like them. But we indeed can still be at peace, if not physically or even mentally yet, certainly spiritually. He died so that we may have life, and indeed, abundant life. May his peace be with all of us.

    1. Jo, your post reminded me that an analysis of true genteel behavior will not teach us all we need to know as I stated previously. A slip of the tongue on my part.

      To your point: From your lips to God’s ear!

  10. I love your work more and more with each piece I read! This one may be the best so far! I have your book (The Gray Fedora) but haven’t read it yet.

  11. I too grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, and I agree and promote the concepts for making things better within in my sphere of influence, family, work, public contacts. I will never cease in those efforts. But, to begin the “debate,” there is, of course, a “however.”

    The “however” is that the world has changed much since the time we grew up. Getting a bloody nose back then has elevated to getting beaten, shot, or stabbed to death.

    The problem today is that people no longer have the external standard as the one many of us grew up with. Although I never read a bible as a youngster (raised Catholic) everyone knew the “golden rule,” and a were familiar with the 10 commandments.

    Today I would say the majority of our youth have no belief in a higher power, and hence, no hope. Having nothing they may trust or rely on, they have become even more cynical and despondent. (Just look at the statistics of teen suicide.)

    Sadly, we are beginning to reap the fruits of what our society has sown. Not too surprising, since “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

  12. While I greatly appreciate the efforts of the men and women who served in the armed forces, and often find ways to celebrate or pay tribute to their sacrifice for our amazing way of life. It would be nice if there was a Peace Memorial in every town right next to the War Memorials. Check out the Peace Abby in Sherborn MA. & their Peace Memorial. They have a nice website with photos & details.

    1. Scott, that’s a great idea. A few years ago our church was going to put in a “peace pole” – a small squared post with the word “Peace” on each of the four sides, in different languages – and there was some debate about it! In a church! Doesn’t everyone want peace? I guess some thought of it as anti-military.

  13. I am enjoying the Imagine blog post from Bangkok where Im a summer Fellow at the Rotary Peace Center, and my cohort of 24 students from 20 countries are learning exactly the skills that Mr. Patterson suggests are in short supply. My only wish is that more opportunities existed for each of us to learn and practice being more comfortable in discomfort.
    Learning that it is indeed possible gives me hope for the future.

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