That people can be incredibly vicious or amazingly enlightened was an unofficial lesson I learned while attending a Quaker summer camp in northern California in the summer of 1967. I quickly became good friends with Michael, who at age 12 was already a confirmed pacifist. The camp was divided into groups of about fifteen kids in each, and our group split itself up even further. Michael and I were a unit with our own campsite area, and two nerdy kids from Los Angeles who’d arrived at camp together staked out another spot. Then there was the rest of the group, each one of them nasty in his own way, who had too obviously been sent to a Quaker summer camp by incompetent parents who hoped their wicked boy would return home with peace and love in his heart instead of hurt and anger.
Michael and I pretty much ignored the nerdy kinds and the larger cluster of mean kids, but the mean kids didn’t ignore us. One of them found a huge toad and placed it in my sleeping bag, which was actually kind of funny. Less funny was the afternoon another urinated in my canteen. It was only because Michael was vigilant that I didn’t crush the toad or drink from the canteen.
One day, Michael and I were chopping firewood. A couple of the boys seemed to think that we made good stationary targets for rock-throwing practice from their encampment, and began pitching stones in our direction. One hit me on the inside of the foot, and it hurt. I’d just taken a judo course, and I was pretty confident I could go over and knock a couple of our tormentors to the ground, but Michael held me back. “Just ignore them,” he advised. Because he’d been such a good friend, and seemed to know what he was talking about, I kept chopping wood. Concentrating wasn’t easy with rocks zinging at us, but in a few minutes, the other kids seemed to lose interest because we just kept working.
The lesson might have been different if Michael or I had been hit in the head by one of the rocks, and to this day I’m not sure we should have run the risk of doing nothing. At the same time, Michael showed me that if you truly believe in nonviolence, you behave accordingly, and that the results aren’t necessarily disastrous. Judo might have been an appropriate compromise between Michael’s pacifist approach and throwing rocks back at our attackers, but his approach worked. I can’t help but wonder if those kids felt a little humiliated when they failed to get us to react. I do know they left us pretty much alone after that day.
G. Randy Kasten is the Author of Just Trust Me: Finding the Truth in a World of Spin (Quest Books, 2011). He is currently working on a book about the future of global conflict.