There once was a drunk man on a train who was hurling abuse at other passengers. As people tried to ignore him, his aggression escalated. After frightening two elderly women with his unpredictable behavior and obscenities, one passenger, Paul, had had enough. As he watched the two women scurry away to another train carriage in fear, he slowly stood up from his seat. Paul, who was a trained martial artist, kept a steady gaze on the unruly man as he walked toward him. His Kung Fu training taught him to defend, not offend, so he was going to let the man take the first swipe, then he would give him what he deserved. 

As Paul approached the angry man, primed to strike, a jovial old man in a nearby seat suddenly called out to the drunk: “Hey!” he said with a warm smile. “Why don’t you come over and sit here?” he added, patting the seat next to him. The passengers were shocked and watched with stunned curiosity. The drunk man’s eyes narrowed as the kind old man continued. “Come and talk to me.” It was such a genuine and warm invitation that he accepted it and sat next to the elderly gentleman. The passengers sat in tense silence, anxious at what would happen next. Paul watched with caution.

“How are you?” asked the compassionate old man. “Are you okay?” The drunk man’s shoulders drooped, as if they released the weight of a thousand sorrows. “No, no I’m not,” he admitted, his voice cracking. “My wife died two weeks ago and I just lost my job. I’ve lost everything,” he said as he buried his head in his hands. The elderly man continued to soothe the drunk, who slumped in his seat next to him, sobbing.

This is a true story told by my friend Paul, the martial artist on that train who never forgot that experience. He witnessed how the elderly gentleman disarmed the disorderly man and protected everyone else with nothing more than compassion and kindness. It was a skill far more advanced in self-defense than anything he had learned in martial arts.

I reflected on how that story can be a pertinent analogy for how we respond to conflicts in life. The drunk man is like the challenges that enter our space. The martial artist represents our defensive part which resides in the Amygdala—the most primitive part of our brain, our fight or flight response. Its sole purpose is to protect and survive. When we experience a conflict, it often interprets it as a threat, triggering and justifying our instinct to defend or attack.

The elderly gentleman, however, represents our wiser part. The part of us that is more curious and inquisitive rather than reactive and judgmental. It can see clarity amidst confusion, pierces through fears and opens us to learning from life experiences. It is also what many spiritual teachers refer to as our “Higher Self.” It knows that compassion and love can break through any tension when it’s stronger than our fear. 

The next time you find yourself in a confronting situation, take a moment and notice which part of you is reacting. If it’s the defensive part—often accompanied with feelings of anxiety and a raised vocal tone—be open to allowing the wiser part of you to interrupt. Because oftentimes, someone just needs to be heard and consoled. And we may just need to have our own limiting defensive patterns jovially interrupted by our Higher Self’s version of a “Hey!”