Almost every morning I walk the beach to Starbucks, buy a café mocha, sit on a bench at the end of the pier and watch the totally unpredictable performance of the Pacific Ocean and all its creatures, above and below the surface of the sea.
One of the stars of the show is an old brown pelican who waddles around the wharf chasing after every freshly caught fish. Sometimes a sympathetic fisherman will toss his catch of the day in the pelican’s direction. Other times the bird is ignored and after a quick protest screech he whirls about indignantly and waddles off to try his luck again.
To start with I am in awe of pelicans in general. How they plummet from such heights without breaking apart on impact is truly a sight to behold. From tip to tip, the wingspan of this old bird must be at least six feet. I can’t even imagine the intricate combination of feathers, bones, tendons and muscles that keep him airborne or the compact and comfortable way those wings fold up against his body.
This morning, the old pelican sat on a railing of the pier watching the fishermen and tolerating the occasional tourist who just had to snap a close up of this calm and curious creature. He fears no one. This is his pier and he stands guard over it like a cranky old watchman.
Today my meditation was interrupted by a 13 or 14-year-old boy who approached the pelican with a fishing pole in hand. Neither the old bird with feathers nor the old bird with a café mocha suspected for a moment that the kid had evil in mind. Suddenly he swung the sinker at the end of his fishing line towards the pelican and as the poor, unsuspecting bird spread his wings to fly, the kid’s line found its mark. Picture it. The pelican writhing on the pier trying to free himself; the kid yelling proudly, “I caught him;” and old Mel running toward the pelican yelling at the kid “You stupid son-of-a b…!”
Never in my life have I called anyone “A stupid, son-of-a b…!” Never! I’m with Soulforce. We advocate nonviolence as the best solution to conflict. Calling that kid a “stupid son-of-a b…!” was an act of violence against him. And as you could predict, almost immediately my violence led to the threat of violent retaliation. A rather muscular 18 or 19-year-old rushed up to me, put his fist up to my face and yelled, “What did you call my cousin?’”
At that moment, I was feeling the kind of rage that I’ve not felt since my last visit to Rome to confront the holy terrorists in the Vatican who call LGBT people “intrinsically evil” and “objectively disordered.” My sympathetic nervous system kicked into flight or fight mode and I was about to punch the 18 or 19-year old when I heard myself say: “You’re right. I shouldn’t have said it…!’” Looking back it was a very wise decision. I’m 72. Need I say more? But my anger blinded me to reality. I wanted to hit someone, anyone and my anger surged further when the kid’s protector yelled, “Then apologize!”
I just stood there watching the pelican writhing on the pier. There was only way to end this confrontation and help free the bird. “OK, I’m sorry,” I said angrily. “Now let’s free the bird.”
Suddenly, the pelican freed himself, extended his wings and flew away. I don’t know if the kid’s thoughtless prank crippled the bird in some permanent way. I don’t know if the pelican will ever return to his pier to waddle after the fishermen and pose for the tourists. I just turned my back on the boys and walked away, fighting back my anger, wondering if I would ever again see that magnificent creature.
After about twenty steps I decided to return to the scene and yell at the kid “I’m calling the park ranger to report you.” Immediately I realized it was an angry, empty threat, another move towards violence and another step away from reconciliation. For twenty five years I’ve taught that the ultimate goal of nonviolence is reconciliation. Could I calm myself enough to practice reconciliation with this kid and his cousin?
I believed Jesus when he said “Love your enemy.” I believed Gandhi when he said “Your enemy was created by God as you were created and thus your enemy is your brother in need of reconciliation.” I believed Dr. King when he said, “Our primary responsibility in life to help create the ‘beloved community’ where we – all of us – can live together in peace (even with our enemies).”
The kid was ignorant. He did a stupid thing but he wasn’t “a son of a b…!” His Parent was my Parent. He is a member of the human family, my family. He is my brother, my son, my grandson. My first response taught him about anger. Now I had a second chance to teach him about love.
As I approached the boys, I smiled sheepishly and said, “I’m sorry I let my anger get the best of me but I need to tell you why. That pelican is the mascot of our pier. He’s practically a pet. And when I saw him trapped in your line I just lost it.” For a moment I was silent, looking directly at the kid. Then I said, “You did a stupid thing but you aren’t stupid. I’ll bet you never do something like that again.” He nodded quickly.
The older cousin stood staring at me unsure how to respond when I looked directly at him and said, “Have a great day. Hope you catch some fish.” Somehow those simple words disarmed us both.