The Committed Parent
Translating social neuroscience to help kids raise parents they can live with and are crazy about ~
A Master of Conflict Resolution
THE TRAIN CLANKED and rattled through the suburbs of Tokyo on a drowsy spring afternoon. Our car was
comparatively empty - a few housewives with their kids in tow, some old folks going shopping. I gazed absently
at the drab houses and dusty hedgerows.
At one station the doors opened, and suddenly the afternoon quiet was shattered by a man bellowing violent,
incomprehensible curses. The man staggered into our car. He wore laborer’s clothing, and he was big, drunk,
and dirty. Screaming, he swung at a woman holding a baby. The blow sent her spinning into the laps of an elderly
couple. It was a miracle that she was unharmed.
Terrified, the couple jumped up and scrambled toward the other end of the car. The laborer aimed a kick at the
retreating back of the old woman but missed as she scuttled to safety. This so enraged the drunk that he grabbed
the metal pole in 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 up.
I was young then, some 20 years ago, and in pretty good shape. I’d been putting in a solid eight hours of aikido
training nearly every day for the past three years. I like 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.
"Aikido," my teacher had 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 people, you are already de-
feated. We study how to resolve conflict, not how
to start it."
I listened to his words. I tried hard I even went so
far as to cross the street to avoid the chimpira, the
pinball punks who lounged around the train stations.
My forbearance exalted me. I felt both tough and
holy. In my heart, however, I wanted an absolutely
legitimate opportunity whereby I might save the
innocent by destroying the guilty.
This is it! I said to myself, getting to my feet. People
are in danger and if I don’t do something fast, they
will probably get hurt.
Seeing me stand up, the drunk recognized a chance to focus his rage. "Aha!" He roared. "A foreigner! You need
a lesson in Japanese manners!"
I held on lightly to the commuter strap overhead and gave him a slow look of disgust and dismissal. I planned to
take this turkey apart, but he had to make the first move. I wanted him mad, so I pursed my lips and blew him an
"All right! He hollered. "You’re gonna get a lesson." He gathered himself for a rush at me.
A split second before he could move, someone shouted "Hey!" It was earsplitting. I remember the strangely
joyous, lilting quality of it - as though you and a friend had been searching diligently for something, and he
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. 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 big man followed, as if on a string. He planted his feet belligerently in front of the old gentleman, and 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.
"What’cha been drinkin’?" he asked, his eyes sparkling with interest. "I been drinkin’ sake," the laborer bellowed
back, "and it’s none of your business!" Flecks of spittle spattered the old man.
"Ah, that’s wonderful," the old man said, "absolutely wonderful! You see, I love sake too. Every night, me and my
wife (she’s 76, you know), we warm up a little bottle of sake and take it out into the garden, and we sit on an old
wooden bench. We watch the sun go down, and we look to see how our persimmon tree is doing. My great-
grandfather planted that tree, and we worry about whether it will recover from those ice storms we had last winter.
Our tree has done better than I expected, though especially when you consider the poor quality of the soil. It is
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.
As he struggled to follow the old man’s conversation, the drunk’s
face began to soften. His fists slowly unclenched. "Yeah," he said.
"I love persimmons, too…" His voice trailed off.
"Yes," said the old man, smiling, "and I’m sure you have a wonderful
"No," replied the laborer. "My wife died." 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 am so ashamed of
Tears rolled down his cheeks; a spasm of despair rippled through
Now it was my turn. Standing there in well-scrubbed youthful
innocence, my make-this-world-safe-for-democracy righteousness, I
suddenly felt dirtier than he was.
Then the train arrived at my stop. As the doors opened, I heard the old man cluck sympathetically.
"My, my," he said, "that is a difficult predicament, indeed. Sit down here and tell me about it."
I turned my head for one last look. The laborer was sprawled on the seat, his head in the old man’s lap.
The old man was softly stroking the filthy, matted hair.
As the train pulled away, I sat down on a bench. What I had wanted to do with muscle had been accomplished
with kind words. I had just seen aikido tried in combat, and the essence of it was love. 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.