Shoulder punchers: an interview with Smerkle Grumpy


  • Mr. Grumpy, it’s a pleasure to sit down with –
  • Smerkle.
  • Pardon?
  • Smerkle, call me Smerkle.
  • Well then, it’s a pleasure sit down with you.
  • Thank you. You as well.
  • It’s been awhile.
  • Been watching my man, Peter, from afar, as the saying goes. Watching him trying to get himself moved. Proud of him. Still patient with people, more than most, more than me. Known him since he was a boy – he’s got a real kind streak.
  • You think he is too kind?
  • Oh no, don’t misunderstand me. Not too kind at all. Glad he’s in a world that’s been short on kindness for a long time. So no, not too kind.
  • Too patient?
  • He’s more patient than I’d be, but no, not too patient. People deserve patience, some need and deserve a lot of it. Some deeply wounded folk in the world.
  • Can he run out of patience?
  • We all can. I remember a time my boy did when he was in reform school back when.
  • Can you tell us about it? Would he mind?
  • He might mind, but I’ll tell you. There was this kid, same age as Peter, in the same hall, the wards where the boys lived. Anyway, this kid, will call him Johnny, liked to punch Peter in the shoulder, doing it light at first, then a little harder, saying sorry later, then punching Pete’s shoulder next time Peter’d walk by. After a while, Peter called him out.
  • Called him out?
  • In this reform school if two of the boys were getting close to a fight, they’d let the boys fight, surrounded by their mates, the male staff watching to make sure no one really got badly hurt, and usually the two combatants became friendly after the fight. Some kind of release I suppose. Calling out was when one kid challenged another, quietly or openly.
  • How’d Peter do it?
  • Wide open. They were in the gym sitting on bleachers, about 30 boys, half a dozen staff or so, taking a break. Peter walks by, Johnny punches him in the shoulder and that was it.
  • What was it?
  • Peter ripped into him. You really want to fight with me that badly? Seriously? Just can’t help yourself, wish it that bad do you? If you’re feeling froggish, then leap, cause your wish has come true.
  • What happened?
  • One smack upside Johnny’s head and down he went. Then Peter did his thing, helped Johnny up, telling him all the time being friends was a lot easier on the both of’m than fighting. Even when he knew he had no choice and had to act, like with Johnny, or protecting someone, he always felt badly about hurting someone.
  • He felt guilty.
  • No-no, not guilty. Badly. Sad. Definitely not guilty.
  • It’s good to be talking with you again, Smerkle.
  • Good to be talking with you too.


The power of kindness

I am not beholden to that influential piece of propaganda that says kindness is weakness. Here’s one example of how wrong that propaganda is. The act of responding to anger and rage by walking away is an act of kindness because the person walking away, disengaging, if you will, is choosing not to inflame the moment any more than it already is. Yet the act of walking away is often considered weak. Rubbish. If it is an act of weakness to be kind, to walk away, then why is it so hard for so many to do exactly that?

If walking away was weakness doing it should be breeze, and it ain’t. As a human rights advocate, I’ve walked away, figuratively and literally, from some nasty, cruel and very often dishonest people, when a part of me fancied the idea of dribbling a few of them around the room and out the door.

There is a reasonable question to be asked. How is it, exactly, that walking away is, in fact, an act of kindness? If we equate the world we live in to the body and mind we live in, would it not be fair to say I am treating my body and mind with greater kindness by sparing both surges in stress and anxiety and anger? Are we not being kind to the world we live in when we choose not to add conflict? I certainly think so.

Kindness is just about as close to sacred as a human trait be, in large part  because you can’t have kindness without respect. Nearly every wound one human inflicts on another requires the absence of respect.  In fact, the depth of the wound one person inflicts on another, can often be measured by the degree to which the respect for the person is missing.

Kindness & compassion

The Dalai Lama is right when he tells us,“Be kind whenever possible” and “if you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” 

There is no doubt in my mind that  kindness and compassion  are the healthiest (and strongest) choices on the table. But being kind and compassionate is not always easy; nor is it always pain free. I would be surrendering my allegiance to honesty if I were to say I am kind and compassionate whenever possible, but that allegiance is under no threat when I say I try to be. And when I am not, and, on occasion, strike back in kind at someone who’s wounded me, I try as soon as possible to own it, apologize, and mean it.

There a few things I appreciate and value more in someone than their capacity for kindness and compassion. It takes no particular skill and little, if any, courage, to be cruel and nasty. It would also be unjust to universally define someone who’s been cruel and nasty as bad.

The online Webster Dictionary defines kindness as “the quality or state of being kind” and compassion as a “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”    Kindness does not mean you don’t hold others (including yourself) accountable for their choices. The goal is to do so with kindness and compassion. Not easy. Very hard, when responding to someone who’s just wounded you in a moment of anger (it is helpful to remember that anger often has sadness as its underpinning) and blisteringly hard when that someone is a person you love and care about.

There is a perfectly understandable question that deserves an answer. What makes responding with kindness and compassion the healthier  choice when I’m the one who’s just been hurt? There is, I believe, a good answer. I don’t believe someone is having a healthy respectful relationship with self when they are lashing out someone in a hurtful way. In fact, I believe it is just the opposite. I think their internal experience of self  is in fairly rough shape.  In most cases their damaged self-image was not their doing. I know many (including me) who’ve lived through various forms of abuse, who’ve had acts of physical and emotional violence perpetrated against them. The struggle to rediscover and, in some cases, discover for the first time, that their truth is as valuable and good and beautiful as anyone on the planet is a steep climb to be sure.

Now, if you respond in kind, and wound them back, you are reaffirming their damaged self-image and strengthening its role in their life.  If that’s what you really want to do, then perhaps you’ve got some work to do on yourself; there’s no shame in that. If it isn’t, please consider this. During the time you are responding with kindness and compassion you are sending the following message to the person. You see their value and worth and you are not  defining them by their behavior.

While we are not responsible for the abuse and violence perpetrated against us in life, we are responsible for healing from it, and we are responsible for the choices we make as a result of it.

As for the few who think it is an act of weakness to respond with kindness and compassion, let me pose the following question. If it is an act of weakness to respond with kindness and compassion, then why is it so hard to do?

More help from my father

We’ve all endured behavior from others we didn’t deserve. Some of us recognize this the moment it happens. Some of us for various reasons have a more difficult time recognizing when we are accepting disrespectful and, in some cases, cruel and abusive treatment from others.  For too many years I was in the latter group. Still am, at times, though rarely. The reason I almost always immediately recognize when I’m being badly treated is an easy-to-apply strategy that occurred to me nearly a dozen years ago.

Now, anyone who really knows me knows my father, Sanford Cleveland Kahrmann, holds the most sacred place in my heart and soul. He was and is the greatest gift my life has ever given me. Although he died at age 55 when I was 15  his continued daily presence  in my heart and soul has, on more than one occasion, helped me get through difficult times. Having at least one parent who loves or loved you completely simply because you are you can be a life saver. Sometimes literally. When I was held up and shot in the head in 1984 and found myself on the ground dying it was the very real presence of my father in my thoughts that gave me the strength to stand up and get the help I needed to save my life. So it didn’t surprise me when my father’s presence in my life resulted in a strategy that helped me disengage from someone years ago who was emotionally abusive. My personal struggles at the time along with some of the more wounding elements of my history were making it hard for me to realize I was letting this person get away with behavior no one should get away with. Then one day the following thought occurred to me: What would I do if I this person treating my father like this? Bingo! That was it! I knew (instantly) if I saw anyone treating my father like this I would have driven them off by any means necessary and protected my father with all my might. Then and there I realized I’d happened on a fool-proof way of recognizing when I was permitting myself to be treated in a way I didn’t deserve.

We all lose our cool at times and say things in the heat of anger, stress or pain that we later regret. If we apologize to each other and mean it, okay then. Wounds can heal. We’re only human after all and the words human and perfection have never been and never will be synonyms. But, if we don’t hold ourselves and each other accountable for our choices and sincerely apologize when we’ve hurt someone, the wounds won’t heal. They’ll simply fester.  If mutual respect is too much to ask for and a sincere apology is too much expect, what’s the point?

So, as you continue your journey in life, think of someone who is for you what my father is for me. Maybe this person is one of your parents, a sibling, your child, a grandparent, friend. It doesn’t matter as long as it is someone you love and cherish with all your heart. Once you’ve identified who this is bring them to mind next time you think you may be accepting behavior you don’t deserve. If you realize you would not allow this person to be treated the way you’re being treated, then the strategy has worked. What you do about it when you realize this varies. Sometimes, not always, the answer is to completely disengage from the person or persons wounding you. Sometimes making it clear you are disengaging from the behavior rather than the person or persons is the healthy choice. There is nothing unhealthy about letting someone know that while you value their presence in your life, there are certain things you will not accept. Some have given me more than one chance, so very often others deserve the same, if, and only if, they recognize and take responsibility for their behavior. If they don’t, better to disengage.

One last thing. The person you love with all your heart who you’d protect with all your might that you’ve chosen for this strategy? You deserve the same level of respect and protection you’d instinctively give them. No doubt they’d be the first to reassure you this is true.