The Zen sword masters say, “If you have to draw your sword, you’ve already lost the battle.” If a situation that we’re responsible for has gone so far that the only way forward is by violent destruction, then we have made some blunder along the way. Once we have destroyed something it is more difficult to engage what is left. Anyone who thinks it’s their job to hack away at the world with their sword in the hope of waking people up and getting things moving dulls their blade and creates a culture of fear and resistance.

But there are more ways than one for us to use our sword. Both kindness and directness can also be extremely sharp. Before Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa, he invited the leader of white armed resistance, General Viljoen, to meet. The general expected this meeting to be between himself and his aides on one side of a conference table and Mandela and his aides on the other, with a lot of intense disagreement and animosity, possibly leading to some concessions on one side or another.

Instead, Mandela invited the general to his own house. They sat next to each other in Mandela’s living room, and Mandela himself served the general tea. Their few aides waited in another room. Mandela spoke in the general’s native Afrikaans. By the end of the meeting the general had agreed to stop fighting.

Mandela’s disarming hospitality and cordiality, the genuine kindness with which he served his enemy tea, cut through the general’s initial resistance. Then in the course of the conversation, when the general said that he and his white followers had the power to stop the upcoming election by violence, Mandela replied, with great directness but without raising his voice, that they could not possibly hope to win. The black and coloured population would never give up their new freedoms, they would resort to guerrilla operations from the bush, and any white armed resistance would lead to decades of civil war. “Is that what you want, General, for your children and your grandchildren?” The general said no, and with that word, the possibility of civil war was defeated. Mandela had not drawn his sword, but he had pulled it an inch out of its sheath, showing the blade. It was enough.

One of the traditions of Aikido is that it is possible to protect our attacker as much as ourselves. The Aikido master Wendy Palmer talks about the two swords: the sword that takes life and the sword that gives life. The sword that takes life is sharp, sharp enough to cut something away. The sword that gives life is sharper, sharp enough to cut something into place. Fierceness can destroy what needs to be destroyed, that’s not so hard to understand. The harder part is the possibility that fierceness could be creative. I can’t say that I know exactly what this means, but I find the idea very provocative. The way that I take it is that sharpness could be so precise and accurate, and offered with such generosity, that it could place something new and needed in exactly the right spot. When we cut with kindness, intending to protect the enemy as well as ourselves, we cut into place a decency that can engage us all.

Author's Bio: 

Crane Wood Stookey, Tall Ship officer and leadership coach, has over 20 years of leadership and workforce engagement experience at sea. He is founder of the Nova Scotia Sea School, and faculty at the ALIA Institute. He was awarded
the Queen’s Jubilee Medal for his contribution to Canadian society.