Will Someone Do Something?
I recently experienced an incident which defined for me the reason I am studying aikido. The incident occurred at our local pool where my children take swimming lessons. It was a normal Saturday morning, busy with dozens of children learning to swim and crowds of parents lining the poolside. A woman was wandering amongst the people touching everyone on the head and saying, “God is love.”
She continued around the pool placing her hand on peoples’ heads, not a very threatening activity, but mildly unsettling. She approached the area where many children were mingling around, waiting for classes to begin, and started touching the children’s heads. A staff member of the pool approached her and asked her to stop. She refused. He took her arm and again asked her to stop. She quickly turned, grabbed him and attempted to pull him into the pool. He shook free of her grasp and she jumped into the pool fully clothed. She continued touching the heads of the children in the lanes as they attempted to swim around her.
She moved from lane to lane and as she approached the lane where my daughter was swimming, I moved closer to her ready to intervene. I felt a strong protective instinct the closer she approached my daughter. Most of the parents were now watching closely and the children were attempting to give her a wide berth. A number of staff members were asking her to get out of the pool and leave the children alone. One of the staff members, a young man, entered the pool and took her arm, endeavouring to escort her from the pool. She was a large and strong woman and easily overpowered him.
By this time people were feeling a little unsettled and a few staff members were at the poolside asking her to get out of the pool. She splashed them with water, saying, “God is love.” The staff member in the pool again attempted to grab her but she suddenly turned on him aggressively and shouted angrily, “No.” At that moment the situation turned from a strange and unsettling situation to a potentially threatening one, especially with so many children nearby. She had turned from placid to aggressive in the blink of an eye.
I realised that there was no one there who would or could take charge of the situation, most people just hanging back and watching, and the pool staff unable to assume authority. I decided that something must be done and I hovered close by waiting for an opportunity. The head staff member was reaching out to the woman saying, “Please leave the pool, the police are on the way.” The woman lunged forward, grabbed her arm and tried to drag her into the pool. I stepped forward and grabbed her wrist. Another parent also stepped forward and grabbed her arm. Together we dragged her from the pool. As she struggled on the poolside, I quickly adjusted my grip and took her in a sankyo wristlock. From that moment I knew that the situation had changed in a subtle way. Circumstances had changed from an unknown quantity to something I could deal with in a concrete way. I had a sankyo lock and could exert an influence on events.
Some staff members and parents took hold of her and attempted to lift and carry her from the pool area, but I said “No, let her get up.” As she rose to her feet I squeezed the sankyo lock, instructed her, “Please come with me,” and led her outside away from the pool area and the children. I directed her towards a low garden wall, telling her, “Please sit down”, and encouraged her to sit by exerting pressure on her wrist and forearm.
She now realised she was unable to move and attempted to struggle and scratch my hands with her free hand, all the while mumbling and praying incoherently. She attempted to reach my face with her hand but was unable to. She seemed to quickly change through a number of moods from aggression to passivity, anger to pleading, intensity to irrationality. She babbled constantly in a stream of consciousness: “God is love… The Lord is my shepherd… You will be forgiven for your sins… Save the children…” Her eyes were wide and staring and she appeared to a have a low awareness of things around her, except for the fact that I was preventing her from moving. Many times she tried to stand and bring her weight and strength to bear on me, but a slight increase in pressure on her wrist and a “Please sit down” and she was unable to break free.
I held her in the lock for maybe fifteen minutes until the police arrived. I released her and she immediately stood and attempted to leave. The three police officers with difficulty managed to sit her back on the low wall and apply handcuffs. I later found out that she was mother of one of the children. The previous day she had been on canteen duty at her son’s school. But something had happened to her — something had slipped or snapped or turned, and she had crossed over from rationality to irrationality. It was a disturbing experience and I still remembering looking into her wide pale blue eyes and knowing that she wasn’t there. There was no understanding or awareness of herself or her surroundings; there was only unpredictability.
I have often pondered since on our frail and tentative grasp of reality and whether I did the right thing. We expect people to act and react in predictable ways, and encountering the unpredictable forced me to question my own actions. I realised that most people are not equipped to handle such situations and just stand back and hope that someone will do something and that everything will turn out all right. I have realised that aikido has given me some tools with which to influence a situation. Of course this was a minor incident and there was no violence, although there was a disturbing undercurrent, a threat or potential for violence. But aikido enabled me to take control of the woman and neutralise the possibility of the situation escalating in unknown ways. I did not hit her or harm her in any way. I quietly and peacefully restrained her without harm to anyone, maybe only some momentary discomfort on her part.
I have also realised that with training comes responsibility. Too often people stand aside waiting for someone else to act. I am not saying that we must step into the breach and make ourselves the target of potential violence, but that sometimes someone must take charge of a situation before thing get out of control. It has given me a greater respect for the police and other professionals whose job it is to step out of the crowd and act, despite danger and the possibility of personal harm. The police are trained to handle such situations, but in the absence of the police whose responsibility is it to act? Does aikido give us a greater capability to deal with such situations, and if so, with that greater capability do we also have a greater responsibility to act?
Many times we hear of circumstances where people fail to act. I remember a story of a woman in a New York lane who was bashed and raped by a gang of youths. Despite her screams and cries for help, no one came to her aid or even called the police. It seems that at least dozens of people in neighboring apartment buildings heard her cries, but all assumed that someone else would do something or call the police.
It seems to me that there is much in aikido training about awareness and responsibility. From simple acts around the dojo such as awareness that something needs cleaning and taking responsibility for doing it ourselves, to the awareness that other students are training alongside us and taking responsibility that we do not throw our partner into a dangerous position. Awareness of our partners’ abilities and weaknesses and taking responsibility for caring for their welfare and not hurting or injuring them. Awareness of potentially dangerous situations and taking responsibility for avoiding or neutralising them.
Aikido enabled me to respond only as much as the situation required. In a relatively mild situation I was able to respond mildly. In a more dangerous situation aikido offers tools to respond in a more forceful way. It reminds me of a situation involving an acquaintance who is a senior and experienced karate exponent. It seems he incurred the road rage of three women whilst driving his car. When he stopped his car the women also stopped and attacked him. He was aware that he could not fight back because a karate blow or kick would have inflicted serious injury or possibly worse. He was also aware that he was legally classified as a lethal weapon and that had he used his karate skills he may have been liable for legal action. Consequently, he only attempted to defend himself and ended up in a hospital.
As Sensei often says, aikido is about options. About getting off the line and putting ourselves in the position of having a number of options for dealing with a situation. The option of a punch or atemi, a throw or a pin, or the option of simply walking away. We are training to deal with violence and aggression and to deal with it in a manner proportional to the threat. A situation like the one at the poolside could be dealt with by a gentle sankyo wristlock, a greater threat can be dealt with in a stronger manner.
For me this is one of the great beauties of aikido as a martial art. Much has been said about aikido being an art of peace and harmony. I gained a small insight into this concept when I realised that aikido is a balanced proportional response to a given situation. We only use as much force as a situation requires and it is balanced to the aggression. We blend with the situation and the attacker’s power is turned back against him.
In any given situation there are many options and possibilities. If someone has to do something, why not us?