Inspiring Story: ‘A Soft Answer’

Inspiring Story: ‘A Soft Answer’

Dec 02


A Soft Answer
By Terry Dobson

A turning point in my life came one day on a train in the middle of a drowsy spring afternoon. The old car clanked and rattled over the rails. It was comparatively empty — a few housewives with their kids in tow, some old folks out shopping, a couple of off-duty bartenders studying the racing form. I gazed absently at the drab houses and dusty hedge rows.

At one station the doors opened, and suddenly the quiet afternoon was shattered by a man bellowing at the top of his lungs — yelling violent, obscene, incomprehensible curses. Just as the doors closed the man, still yelling, staggered into our car. He was big, drunk, and dirty. He wore laborer’s clothing. His front was stiff with dried vomit. His eyes bugged out, a demonic, neon red. His hair was crusted with filth. Screaming, he swung at the first person he saw, a woman holding a baby. The blow glanced off her shoulder, sending her spinning into the laps of an elderly couple. It was a miracle that the baby was unharmed.

The couple jumped up and scrambled toward the other end of the car. They were terrified. The laborer aimed a kick at the retreating back of the old lady. “You old whore!” he bellowed. “I’ll kick your ass!” He missed; the old woman scuttled to safety. This so enraged the drunk that he grabbed the metal pole at the center of the car and tried to wrench it out of its stanchion. I could see that one of his hands was cut and bleeding. The train lurched ahead, the passengers frozen with fear. I stood tip.

I was young and in pretty good shape. I stood six feet, weighed 225. I’d been putting in a solid eight hours of aikido training every day for the past three years. I liked to throw and grapple. I thought I was tough. Trouble was, my martial skill was untested in actual combat. As students of aikido, we were not allowed to fight.

My teacher taught us each morning that the art was devoted to peace. “Aikido,” he said again and again, “is the art of reconciliation. Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection with the universe. If you try to dominate other people, you are already defeated. We study how to resolve conflict, not how to start it.”

I listened to his words. I tried hard. I wanted to quit fighting. I even went so far as to cross the street a few times to avoid the “chimpira,” the pinball punks who lounged around the train stations. They’d have been happy to test my martial ability. My forbearance exalted me. I felt both tough and holy. In my heart of hearts, however, I was dying to be a hero. I wanted a chance, an absolutely legitimate opportunity whereby I might save the innocent by destroying the guilty.

“This is it!” I said to myself as I got to my feet. “This slob, this animal, is drunk and mean and violent. People are in danger. If I don’t do something fast, somebody will probably get hurt. I’m gonna take his ass to the cleaners.”

Seeing me stand up, the drunk saw a chance to focus his rage. “Aha!” he roared. “A foreigner! You need a lesson in Japanese manners!” He punched the metal pole once to give weight to his words.

I held on lightly to the commuter strap overhead. I gave him a slow look of disgust and dismissal. I gave him every bit of piss-ant nastiness I could summon up. I planned to take this turkey apart, but he had to be the one to move First. And I wanted him mad, because the madder he got, the more certain my victory. I pursed my lips and blew him a sneering, insolent kiss. It hit him like a slap in the face. “All right!” he hollered. “You’re gonna get a lesson.” He gathered himself for a rush at me. He’d never know what hit him.

A split second before he moved, someone shouted “Hey!” It was ear splitting. I remember being struck by the strangely joyous, lilting quality of it — as though you and a friend had been searching diligently for something, and he had suddenly stumbled upon it. “Hey!” I wheeled to my left, the drunk spun to his right. We both stared down at a little old Japanese man. He must have been well into his seventies, this tiny gentleman, sitting there immaculate in his kimono and hakama. He took no notice of me, but beamed delightedly at the laborer, as though he had a most important, most welcome secret to share.

“C’mere,” the old man said in an easy vernacular, beckoning to the drunk. “C’mere and talk with me.” He waved his hand lightly. The giant man followed, as if on a string. He planted his feet belligerently in front of the old gentleman and towered threateningly over him.

“Talk to you?” he roared above the clacking wheels. “Why the hell should I talk to you?” The drunk now had his back to me. If his elbow moved so much as a millimeter, I’d drop him in his socks.

The old man continued to beam at the laborer. There was not a trace of fear or resentment about him. “What’cha been drinkin’?” he asked lightly, with interest. “I been drinkin’ sake,” the laborer bellowed back, “and it’s none of your god dam business!”

“Oh, that’s wonderful,” the old man said with delight. “Absolutely wonderful! You see, I love sake, too. Every night, me and my wife (she’s seventy-six, you know), we warm up a little bottle of sake and take it our into the garden, and we sit on the old wooden bench that my grandfather’s first student made for him. We watch the sun go down, and we look to see how our persimmon tree is doing. My great-grandfather planted that tree, you know, and we worry about whether it will recover from those ice storms we had last winter. Persimmons do not do well after ice storms, although I must say that ours has done rather better that I expected, especially when you consider the poor quality of the soil. Still, it is most gratifying to watch when we take our sake and go out to enjoy the evening — even when it rains!” He looked up at the laborer, eyes twinkling, happy to share his delightful information.

As he struggled to follow the intricacies of the old man’s conversation, the drunk’s face began to soften. His fists slowly unclenched. “Yeah,” he said slowly, “I love persimmons, too…” His voice trailed off.

“Yes,” said the old man, smiling, “and I’m sure you have a wonderful wife.”

“No,” replied the laborer, “my wife died.” He hung his head. Very gently, swaying with the motion of the train, the big man began to sob. “I don’t got no wife, I don’t got no home, I don’t got no job, I don’t got no money, I don’t got nowhere to go. I’m so ashamed of myself.” Tears rolled down his cheeks; a spasm of pure despair rippled through his body. Above the baggage rack a four-color ad trumpeted the virtues of suburban luxury living.

Now it was my turn. Standing there in my well-scrubbed youthful innocence, my make-this-world-safe-for-democracy righteousness, I suddenly felt dirtier than he was.

Just then, the train arrived at my stop. The platform was packed, and the crowd surged into the car as soon as the doors opened. Maneuvering my way out, I heard the old man cluck sympathetically. “My, my,” he said with undiminished delight, “that is a very difficult predicament, indeed. Sit down here and tell me about it.”

I turned my head for one last look. The laborer was sprawled like a sack on the seat, his head in the old man’s lap. The old man looked down at him, all compassion and delight, one hand softly stroking the filthy, matted head.

As the train pulled away, I sat down on a bench. What I had wanted to do with muscle and meanness had been accomplished with a few kind words. I had seen aikido tried in combat, and the essence of it was love, as the founder had said. I would have to practice the art with an entirely different spirit. It would be a long time before I could speak about the resolution of conflict.


Terry Dobson was a holder of a fifth-degree black belt in aikido, coauthor of “Aikido in Everyday Life” (North Atlantic Books), and author of the book “It’s a Lot Like Dancing: An Aikido Journey” (Frog, Ltd.), among other works. He died in 1992 at age 55. This article, published in NEW AGE JOURNAL in 1981, first appeared in the “Lomi School Bulletin.”



  1. Baker Gendron

    One of my all time favorite stories David, thanks for sharing it again! Love you, BakeR

  2. I don’t buy it. Sounds like a fictitious story spewed by many of the soft martial arts. And if it’s real, pure chance that it worked this one time. Plenty of drunks in my ancestral line that could not be talked out of dangerous and threatening rage. Maybe it’s a Japanese thing, but hadn’t worked all that well in Eastern Europe.

  3. For many years I worked as a hospital porter. A relevant memory comes to mind.
    A ‘code four’ came over the radio {violent incident) and its location. Me and four colleagues arrived and were alerted to a guy in a side room who was becoming violent. We stood outside the door and prepared to give immediate assistance to the nurse inside.
    She calmly talked to him and after a few minutes, he had calmed right down and accepted some medication. Her calming influence and professional appraisal of the situation brought tears to my eyes.
    Whether the above story is true in its entirety or is just based on real events is neither here or there. I have seen this sort of thing take place in real life.

  4. I had a similar experience when I went to Washington D.C. with a group of 6th graders from one of the Charter Schools in Sedona. In one of the most haunting synchronicities I’ve ever experienced, I told this story to one of the 6th grade boys in an attempt to get him to think about treating others more kindly. He was a big fan of WWE wrestling. He scoffed at the story and thought it was stupid.

    The next day, we got on a bus. After we had driven a couple blocks, a man got on the bus who, while not drunk, started making all kinds of rude comments about people coming from out of town to visit DC. The more he talked, the louder and more threatening he became. The children, teachers, and especially the young boy, who was sitting closest to him, were all getting very uncomfortable. And I was, too, since I was the only adult male in our group. So to break the ice, I engaged the man and started asking him about himself: Did he live in DC? Had he always lived here? I told him where we were from and why we had come. As soon as I engaged him, he immediately calmed down, and by the time the conversation was finished, he apologized to everyone for being rude.

    That’s a true story. So based on my personal experience, I believe Dobson’s story was true too.

    You can find a video of the Charter School kids I went to DC with here:

    My youngest daughter was on that trip, and also on the bus when this happened!

  5. Lester, here’s another story for you:

    A Victim Treats His Mugger Right
    March 28, 2008

    • Agreed, gentle persuasion can work in a violent situation, but if it doesn’t and you aren’t able to defend yourself then be sure you have an escape route in mind.

  6. Rick

    Thanks for sharing the link to this article, David. It’s always good to be reminded of the power of genuine compassion. Good NPR story too.

    These are awesome ways to live. Lester’s point is understandable, though it would be neat to have the resolve to be kind in the face of anything. This would have a tremendous impact on the person hurting you. But then, knowing the exits isn’t foolish either (think meth-head). I’d still pray that my love could get past the drugs to his core somehow…

    Thanks again for the stories!

  7. Hi David, Thank you for this article, Aikido is very close to my heart, and I have practiced it for many years. What is said in here is so true. I have always believed that Aikido was the result of the founder Morihei Ushiba having a NDE, after reading about the experience that caused him to create Aikido. I went on to become a instructor and taught Aikido in the Police training Unit for many years, prior to becoming a Priest.

  8. Hi Rod. Thanks for adding your comments. I didn’t know that Aikido may have been inspired by a near-death experience. That’s very interesting. How are things unfolding with your work with the Bereavement Centre?

  9. Hi David,

    Things are going very well indeed with our Bereavement Rescue work, and we are getting brilliant results. Only yesterday I was with a family organizing the funeral of a lady who had just passed over. When we arrived the old man was extremely distressed. We sat with him and his daughter and spent an hour or so giving them the evidence for NDEs and the very real hope that they will be reunited with their loved one. As we left, the old man stood up and shook my hand, and said “When you arrived I was really feeling bad, but now I feel much better”. His eyes were sparkling and he had a broad smile on his face. His Daughter came over to me and said “Can I give you a hug?”. The old man hugged Caroline too and both had clearly been comforted by what we had shared with them about NDEs, continuity of consciousness and ultimate reunion with their loved one. This is typical of the results we get with the Bereavement Rescue approach, although this old man was probably the most upset bereaved person we have yet seen.

    We are still working towards building a Bereavement Rescue Centre where people can come to stay and receive more intensive support. We have been offered a location, but there are still planning issues to address and fund raising to do.

    Your support and interest is very much appreciated.

    Kindest Regards


  10. Rod, good story! I’m glad to hear things are moving along. For those of you who would like to know, the Bereavement Rescue Centre website is located here:

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