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Resisting the pressure to fight back

By Jeannette Batz

The routine is always the same: Excited canine whimpers, building in volume as the car approaches Nottingham School’s fenced-in field. Paws up-and-down on the front seat like a majorette marching to Sousa. Then a yelping moan of frustration, as Sophie glimpses, through windshield glass, the Florentine glint of Mattie the golden retriever.

Finally, finally, an exuberant leap from the car and a mad dash across the field, two labs and a greyhound running long loops to meet her. It’s “playtime,” the twilight ritual that lets city-dwelling dogs vent housebound energy while their owners gossip.

Usually, it’s a delightful ritual. But tonight, two of the neighborhood’s more ... er ... behaviorally challenged dogs were participating. Jasper was muzzled, because he’d been biting again. Molly was her usual feisty self. They both decided to chase Sophie with an unprecedented focus, nipping at her hindquarters and growling. She stopped each time, shooting a worried glance at the rest of us as she scrunched down on her long legs, cowering into a dog shorter and shakier than the usual Sophie, saying, “I mean you no harm” with every inch of her body.

Still they went after her, and their humans chuckled. “Sophie just needs to learn to give Molly what-for,” remarked the wife, goading our sweet dog with a fervor the Romans reserved for gladiators.

Sophie didn’t bite. And when I began our departure -- easing away awkwardly, feeling like an overprotective wuss, explaining apologetically that we didn’t exactly want Sophie to learn to be aggressive -- she came willingly. No lingering glances over her shoulder, no silent pleas for just one more lap around the field. She was glad to leave, glad even to hop back into the hot metal car.

I drove home furious, so filled with protective rage I interrupted my husband’s monthly ritual -- a World War II military-strategy game he plays with history-loving friends in lieu of ’50s poker -- to tell him about the war of the dogs. “There’s no need for her to learn to fight,” he said quietly, so grim I knew he was as angry as I. Angry that a peaceable dog who lives safely with humans, spending most of her time on a sofa or the family bed, should be expected to learn to harm or frighten other animals just to show some playground dominance.

Ah. There it was. The buried reason for the anger so disproportionately tightening my throat and scalding my cheeks. The playground. Linda Dooley, to be specific, who kicked me in the crotch, hard, to taunt me into fighting back. She said she was my friend and she was doing it for my own good. Then she resumed the taunts, joined like the pied piper by the other kids.

“I don’t want to kick you back,” I sputtered. And I meant it. I felt vengeful, all right; my tears had more to do with frustration than the dull ache where she’d kicked me. But fighting back seemed like no solution at all.

That sounds very noble. It wasn’t. I was passive, painfully self-conscious, unschooled in the ways of the playground, slow to react with my body. But at least I knew my temperament well enough to recoil from practices alien to it. And my husband, who endured his own share of sensitive-child torments from tougher boys, emerged with a similar mind-set.

Oddly, what bothers me most is not the harsh fact that humans and other animals often hurt or terrorize each other. What bothers me most is that we’ve all made our peace with it. “Oh, he’s just expressing dominance,” a dog-owner will say while her Doberman’s behind the dumpster eating a Chihuahua. “Kids can be cruel,” we grownups say, shaking our heads with rueful wisdom, while inside a gleeful little voice thanks God we don’t have to take it anymore.

And then we return to our grown-up games, completely oblivious of the Latin root of competition, competitus, meaning to strive together toward something. Try finding a sport or a board game that doesn’t depend on seizing territory from someone else or gaining at their expense. Try forging a relationship that doesn’t slip into one-upmanship, as we hurl emotional slings and arrows because that’s the way everybody else does it. Try finding advice for career women that doesn’t advise assumed toughness or gamesmanship.

Try resisting the pressure.

When a friend got a divorce many years ago, everybody who cared about him -- including, I’m embarrassed to say, myself -- warned him to let a good lawyer handle it, not try to work things out between the two of them, not trust his wife. Why, she could keep their child from him, she could take all his money. ...

She could. But she didn’t. He knew her well. But above all, he refused to run his life that way. The two of them cut right past the dueling lawyers and spoke directly to each other as gently and sensibly as they could, forestalling all sorts of lawyerly games and third-party miscommunications, followed by misunderstandings, followed by high dudgeon and retribution for imagined affronts. They have remained friends to this day.

We are so convinced the world has to be harsh; so convinced we have to claw our way through, fight any dog who challenges us. Turn the other cheek? Must have meant something else, surely the scholars have done a job on that one by now, reinterpreting according to cultural context or historical circumstance? Everybody knows you’ve gotta stand up for yourself, give as good as you get, show ’em you’re braver than they are. ...

But what if the real cowardice is letting bullies make the rules?

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 1999