“Did you exchange, a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?”
-Pink Floyd, "Wish You Were Here"
Such a deep question and one of my favorite lines in music. Though it is doubtful that the meaning I take is precisely what the band originally intended, it's their fault for leaving such profound line just lying around. As a martial artist, that line has always struck me as what should run through our minds the instant we see ourselves or another in peril. We can contemplate that question all we want, but we can only truly answer it in that instant that demands one. Am I truly willing to fight back, to so "no" to a mugger, to stand up to a bully, to not just sit idly by on a SEPTA train for eight long minutes. Or, will I choose to bear the mantle of oppression? What else could we call that fear to get involved and permit another's pain or even our own.
It is an interesting choice of words for this lyrical question. The participants in war are seldom those that brought about the situation. They are generally reluctant participants. Despite important roles to play, they would much rather be home watching their children play, holding their spouse, or just running to the corner store. But they aren't. If they had the power to wish themselves home, they would certainly be tempted.
There are stakes in conflicts. Most assuredly they are proportionate to the situation. If someone steals a purse or wallet, yes they get the contents which can be replaced, but that isn't the only thing exchanged. Success begets success, if they get our stuff, they are emboldened to repeat aggression to another. Worse yet, we are forever impacted by that violation. The same is true of any theft or assault, from a copped feel to a car-jacking. That feeling is the cage.
This certainly is not intended to say that all fights should be fought. As martial artists, we learn that we never fight a battle you cannot win. You don't go after a force three times your size and expect to come out unscathed. But that is where defining the battle comes in, or more precisely stated, defining the objective. It may be wise to fight a battle you cannot come away from unharmed or maybe even not at all, if that is not the objective that matters. The objective may be to protect another, either to delay long enough for help to arrive or for them to escape. Or it may be risking that bloody nose to not live in the emotional cage built by a bully.
There are infinite what-if scenarios and there is no general prescription that could hope to resolve them all. It would be foolish to suggest one. Thus we can only answer this profound question in the context of a particular instant. The one thing we can do now, before that moment, is wear the same mantle of responsibility shared by most every creature on earth, to learn to protect ourselves . We bear that unfortunate duty by training in some form of martial art (Aikido, Boxing, firearms, etc.). By giving our future selves a set of tools that can be called upon, we create true options. Because in that moment, when the question is put to us, our ability to answer will be limited to what knowledge we bring to that moment.