Body talk

There is nothing like getting punched in the face to make you aware of how deeply seated is a sense of self.  I don’t think I’d been in a physical confrontation since James Fitzgerald pushed me around during lunch period in 8th grade, more than 60 years ago.  I remember that one because I think I deserved it.  But he never punched me.  For that I’d have to go back to 4th or 5th grade when I was actually winning in a fist fight with Denny Thompson, and the Hungarian woman who helped my mother in the house stopped it.  I was so frustrated because the Thompson’s were a local family of roughneck bullies who had frequently pushed me around and shaken me down.  For the first time I was standing on my own and Clara stopped it!

In any case, yesterday (Saturday) I was walking down Benjamin Franklin Boulevard towards City Hall where I wanted to see the new statue of Harriett Tubman that had been installed there this week.  As I approached Arch Street, coming toward me on the sidewalk was a man on a bicycle weaving back and forth.  I couldn’t tell which way to move to avoid his path because it kept changing.  When we got near each other, he suddenly punched me in the face.  I was startled.  In the seconds it took me to take in what had happened he had moved on.

In the aftermath I was very upset.  He had hit me on the ridge of the cheek bone.  If it had been a little bit higher, I would have had a black eye.  But I didn’t.  If it had been a little bit more to the center, I would have had a bloody nose.  But I didn’t.  He didn’t hit me hard enough to knock me down.  I didn’t feel pain so much as the vibrations that his blow had set off in the bones of my head. They passed quickly.

What I did feel was extremely disturbed that I had been violated. If I hadn’t been so surprised, I might have cried, but all I could feel was what-was-that-all-about?  I also felt like running away.  Like maybe I should get out of Philadelphia.  Then I thought that we can’t ever be absolutely safe from random violence in this society.   When I got home, I read about events that were happening during my encounter: the hostage siege at the synagogue in Texas and the woman killed in New York when she was pushed into the path of an oncoming subway train.

I realized that most of my feelings were a longing for a cocoon where I could be safe and comfortable, and anger that I had been violated, that he had invaded my space.  One irony of this incident is that on the Monday before I had participated in a Dharma study group Sutta and the City, where the topic was a teaching on identity.  During the discussion I asked the leader, who had been my Pali teacher last summer, how the word sakaya had morphed from its first meaning of “body” to the meaning of “identity.”  He tried to take it back to the Sanskrit etymology, but that only brought him the Sanskrit word kaya, which I said also just means “body.”  I thanked him then to move on because it was obvious he didn’t have an answer to my question.  The punch in my face on Saturday did answer the question.


  1. Ken, as I mentioned to Kate, there was an episode about this “game” on Blue Bloods awhile ago. This is ridiculous and can be very serious, so I’m glad you were not hurt more seriously.

  2. Ken, I’m so glad you’re physically OK. But I agree – that violation of self goes very deep. You certainly have a wide and deep support from your various fans, which helps. Even so, one doesn’t ever quite recover from that gratuitous violation. It certainly gives us more empathy for whole swaths of the population that experience this type of thing as “normal.”
    I’m helping some Afghan refugees now, and I can’t begin to imagine what they’ve gone through.
    The Iranian father of a former student was back in Iran during the revolution. He said that when rounding a corner, a man with a gun would challenge him. He had to make a quick assessment of which side the guy was on, then declare his allegiance to that side. Next corner, same thing. We’ve been relatively fortunate so far….

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