Ambiguity Of Violence

Robert Sapolsky

Reading by Liz Helgesen (Download file)

Image of the WeekIt is the ambiguity of violence, that we can pull a trigger as an act of hideous aggression or of self-sacrificing love, that is so challenging. As a result, violence will always be a part of the human experience that is profoundly hard to understand. The biologies of strong love and strong hate are similar in many ways, which is we don’t actually hate aggression -- we hate the wrong kind of aggression but love it in the right context.

My wife and I were in the minivan once, our kids in the back, my wife driving. And this completely reckless driver cuts us off, almost causing an accident, and in a way that makes it clear that it wasn’t distractedness on his part, just sheer selfishness.

My wife honks at him, and he flips us off. We’re livid, incensed. *****-where’s-the-cops-when-you-need-them, etc.

And suddenly my wife announces that we’re going to follow him, make him a little nervous. I’m still furious, but this doesn’t strike me as the most prudent thing in the world. Nonetheless, my wife starts trailing him, right on his rear.

After a few minutes the guy’s driving evasively, but my wife’s on him. Finally both cars stop at a red light, one that we know is a long one. Another car is stopped in front of the villain. He’s not going anywhere.

Suddenly my wife grabs something from the front seat divider, opens her door, and says, “Now he’s going to be sorry.”

I rouse myself feebly—“Uh, honey, do you really think this is such a goo—” But she’s out of the car, starts pounding on his window.

I hurry over just in time to hear my wife say, “If you could do something that mean to another person, you probably need this,” in a venomous voice. She then flings something in the window. She returns to the car triumphant, just glorious.

"What did you throw in there!?" She’s not talking yet. The light turns green, there’s no one behind us, and we just sit there.

The thug’s car starts to blink a very sensible turn indicator, makes a slow turn, and heads down a side street into the dark at, like, five miles an hour.

If it’s possible for a car to look ashamed, this car was doing it.

“Honey, what did you throw in there, tell me?”

She allows herself a small, malicious grin. “A grape lollipop.”

I was awed by her savage passive-aggressiveness —“You’re such a mean, awful human that something must have gone really wrong in your childhood, and maybe this lollipop will help correct that just a little.” 

Robert Sapolsky is a world-renowned neuroscientist and long-time professor at Stanford, who has spent decades studying violence. This story is from the opening of his best-selling book  'Behave'. Explore more on this topic via this talk.

Seed questions for reflection: How do you relate to the notion that the context of aggression matters? Can you share an experience that involved the 'right' kind of aggression? What helps you tinge even your aggressive moments with love?

Add Your Reflection:

18 Previous Reflections:

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    On Apr 3, 2021 Paul wrote:
    Best to let this sort of thing go. There is an equal chance that the driver of the other vehicle responds violently especially to a female.

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    On Mar 30, 2021 Patrick wrote:
    Robert Sapolsky is an amazing human being and neuroscientist.

    He is also one of many scientists who profess to be atheists. I suspect that attitude is due mostly to “bad” religion? I might also suggest that most atheists are actually agnostic, especially the scientists. Even Einstein knew he didn’t know.

    Having abandoned religion myself during college, I “returned” later though with a very different perspective on spirituality. I have remained a scientist through it all.

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    On Mar 30, 2021 Ruby U Grad wrote:
    I appreciate the mother's anger and frustration at the other driver's apparent act of malicious aggression. But I don't agree with any act that arises from anger and ill will, including hers. The whole thing might have appeared the same If the mother had come from an open heart and compassion in following the other driver and then giving him the lollipop and the message. Instead of what the author interpreted as shame, which is not a useful emotion, the other driver may have felt appreciation and even love at having been seen as more than a bad person because of an act of aggressive driving, but as a whole human being. What helps tinge my experiences of anger and aggression is reminding myself that I never have enough information to act on my emotions, and that everyone inherits the results of whatever actions they perform. In this example, perhaps the other driver was on his way to a hospital because his wife was giving birth, a child had been injured, etc., or the mother ... [View Full Comment] I appreciate the mother's anger and frustration at the other driver's apparent act of malicious aggression. But I don't agree with any act that arises from anger and ill will, including hers. The whole thing might have appeared the same If the mother had come from an open heart and compassion in following the other driver and then giving him the lollipop and the message. Instead of what the author interpreted as shame, which is not a useful emotion, the other driver may have felt appreciation and even love at having been seen as more than a bad person because of an act of aggressive driving, but as a whole human being. What helps tinge my experiences of anger and aggression is reminding myself that I never have enough information to act on my emotions, and that everyone inherits the results of whatever actions they perform. In this example, perhaps the other driver was on his way to a hospital because his wife was giving birth, a child had been injured, etc., or the mother may have done something before that caused the other driver to become angry, which he had interpreted as aggressive. I'm not trying to justify anyone's actions, but while there may have been no objective reason the author or his wife could see to cut off their minivan, the other driver may have believed otherwise. No matter what, the other driver will realize the consequences of his acts. It's never up to me to be the one to be the agent of those consequences if I act through anger and aggression and "other" someone else.[Hide Full Comment]

    1 reply: Me | Post Your Reply
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    On Mar 30, 2021 Sam wrote:
    seems we are assuming that violence and aggression cannot be tempered by will...instinctive self preservation/defense is not the same as retribution or revenge...still, instinctual violence and aggression can be controlled by willful intent if trained accordingly...in an age when violence is condoned and often glorified, few intend otherwise as a response

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    On Mar 30, 2021 Patrick wrote:
    It is true that behind most if not all human evil is brokenness.
    That said, we must exercise great caution and compassion when confronting it.

    }:- a.m. (anonemoose monk)

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    On Mar 30, 2021 Barbara wrote:
    Love the intention of giving sweetness to someone. My concern is forbthe kiddos in the car.

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    On Mar 30, 2021 TBrown wrote:
    The Tree Bears Witness
    Triggering moments are tricky.
    Was it the single finger, the blaring horn, the sudden, scary interruption without signal?
    Many assumptions and nosingle story to make us whole.
    I know them, hold them, ancient and anchored in my roots.
    Who is the “thug,” the “villain,” the “reckless, selfish” one,the passionate, protective parent?
    Please — no need (or knees) for police in a fearless land of purple lollipops.May wepause andbreathe,letgrace and my prayer-filledbranches love us all sweetly home.

    1 reply: Manoj | Post Your Reply
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    On Mar 30, 2021 Fatuma Namukasa wrote:
    This is a beautiful way of paying back wrong aggression...with that type of sweet aggression...Thank you so much!

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    On Mar 30, 2021 stream wrote:
    Though I think I always abhorred any energetic resembling aggression , I perpetrated many explosive violent reactions toward my brother and other neighborhood kids when i became frustrated, not knowing how to express my needs for emotional understanding. I can forgive myself and others for acts of violence with the context of understanding now that we do not live in a culture that places value on emotional learning. When I was eligible for the draft into the Vietnam War, I looked into becoming a conscientiousobjector . I knew in my heart that there is no violence that is Right or ok, that the idea of turning the other cheek was the only path to peace. The idea of NVC that when we can discover all of our beautiful needs and communicate them as requests , not demands, that we can all live non-violently in win/win. That is the world that I envision, yet when I or someone else acts out usually or maybe always due to fear I know that the violent act is always an unskillful way to get Love... [View Full Comment] Though I think I always abhorred any energetic resembling aggression , I perpetrated many explosive violent reactions toward my brother and other neighborhood kids when i became frustrated, not knowing how to express my needs for emotional understanding. I can forgive myself and others for acts of violence with the context of understanding now that we do not live in a culture that places value on emotional learning.
    When I was eligible for the draft into the Vietnam War, I looked into becoming a conscientiousobjector . I knew in my heart that there is no violence that is Right or ok, that the idea of turning the other cheek was the only path to peace. The idea of NVC that when we can discover all of our beautiful needs and communicate them as requests , not demands, that we can all live non-violently in win/win.
    That is the world that I envision, yet when I or someone else acts out
    usually or maybe always due to fear I know that the violent act is always an unskillful way to get Love that we truly desire and even if there is grief or anger summoned in response to the aggression, I remember that that aggression is a call for help, and I know that there is only love.[Hide Full Comment]

    1 reply: Manoj | Post Your Reply
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    On Mar 29, 2021 anand Damani wrote:
    Aggression is the manifestation of fear. Human beings are sentient beings and as a resolved person I can chart the journey of how the deluded mind moves from not understanding something to fear to aggression.
    It is the science of the human soul the life atom. If this knowledge can be explained understood and practiced by just a group of families it will attract the attention of the world and spread like a wild fire.

    You just need resolution and there will be no aggression in society. The aggression starts in the thoughts and the seed is the perceived reality that is by itself a delusion.

    Join me in finding your own resolution and help others become resolve seeing your state of permanent bliss which ia what even the person doing the aggression needs.
    ananddamani.com
    howtogivemore.com

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    On Mar 29, 2021 Liz Helgesen wrote:
    With Love Not Aggression

    This piece made me feel very uncomfortable. I am uncertain the wife's actions were wise, and seemed not non-violent to me. Especially that children were in the car watching and experiencing what was being modeled. Second, calling the other driver a villain, also does not seem non-violent. We don't know what we don't know.

    Gosh, I would need to take a breath and choose my response carefully with so much and so many lives at stake. With love, always. Liz

    2 replies: Fatuma, Manoj | Post Your Reply
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    On Mar 27, 2021 David Doane wrote:
    Aggression means hostile, violent, attacking. For me, the context of aggression doesn't matter. Aggression meaning hostile or violent is always unnecessary and probably harmful. I don't have an experience of the right kind of aggression or violence. I've had experiences of being aggressive, and for me they weren't right and I regret them. Being aggressive is fitting in war because, as I see it, both aggression and war are harmful and wrong. Various institutions and groups find a rationale to make aggression justifiable in certain contexts -- I don't. I support being active, assertive, strong, firm, disagreeing, objecting -- those aren't violent (unless done violently). When I've been aggressive or violent,it hasn't been tinged with love, it's been nonlove, fearful and harmful. For me, when there is love there isn't aggression, there's healing and union.

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    On Mar 26, 2021 Jagdish P Dave wrote:
    I tend to agree with the author Robert Sapolskythat aggression will always be a part of human experience. Love also will be a part of the human experience since the biologies of strong love and strong hate are the same. The contextof aggression matters. Animals as well as humans protect their childrenfrom the cruel jaws of mean aggressors. In order to protect the innocent, aggressive behaviors have to be dealt withwithout reacting. And that's the way I interpretthe behavior of the mother narrated in this essay. Without using discretioncounter- aggressive behaviors could cause havoc. History is full of such violent behaviors whether it is like throwing nuclear bombs or poisonous gas in Japan and Vietnam. If we follow "eye for an eye" way for retaliating to the enemy then as Mahatma Gandhi said the whole world will be blind. My stance on aggression and violence is to respond to violence with non-violence and hate with love. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and Dalai L... [View Full Comment] I tend to agree with the author Robert Sapolskythat aggression will always be a part of human experience. Love also will be a part of the human experience since the biologies of strong love and strong hate are the same. The contextof aggression matters. Animals as well as humans protect their childrenfrom the cruel jaws of mean aggressors. In order to protect the innocent, aggressive behaviors have to be dealt withwithout reacting. And that's the way I interpretthe behavior of the mother narrated in this essay. Without using discretioncounter- aggressive behaviors could cause havoc. History is full of such violent behaviors whether it is like throwing nuclear bombs or poisonous gas in Japan and Vietnam. If we follow "eye for an eye" way for retaliating to the enemy then as Mahatma Gandhi said the whole world will be blind.

    My stance on aggression and violence is to respond to violence with non-violence and hate with love. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and Dalai Lama are living examples of implementing this philosophy. I have not encountered heavy duty aggressive behaviors in my life. A couple of times I had run into aggressive car drivers cutting me off on highways. I let them pass by praying for their safety and the safety of other drivers like me. There are
    aggressive drivers on roads. It does not make sense to react to them aggressively.

    I apply the wise saying of Viktor Franklwhen I encounter aggressive behaviors in my life. " Between a stimulus and a response there is gap and in that space there is freedom and power." When I encounter an aggressive behavior I pause, breathe deeply and I remain in charge of my potentially aggressive response. I
    try to empathizewith the aggressorand respond to him compassionately. Many times aggressive behaviors are symptoms of unresolved deep conflicts. If
    Icounteract with an aggressive behavior, it adds fuel to the fire. Regular practice of Mindfulness Meditation and Loving Kindness has been very helpful to me forregulating my aggressive impulsesand for creating kindness and compassion for the other person.
    Namaste!
    Jagdish P Dave'
    [Hide Full Comment]

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