In elementary school ages, I often watched my elderly neighbors playing Xiangqi (Chinese chess). Back in that remote village in early 90’s, children did not have any homework; if you could read, you were ranked top of the class. I quickly got interested in strategy games, in the art of fighting and maneuvering. In high school, I attempted to write a short fantasy fiction (which was never completed), and it was about war. Buried deep in my subconsciousness was a desire to win.
That was because that never happened in my childhood.
The Bully and the Bullied
I was born with myopia. By the time being in third grade, I could not see the blackboard and learned in class only by listening to the teachers and peeking at classmates’ notebooks. At that time, nobody in my network knew about nearsightedness and I wasn’t aware of my handicap. (When you are a little kid, you accept everything as is, however abnormal.) At the end of my elementary school, a teacher discovered that, and a few months later I became the first person in the entire village to wear nearsighted glasses.
One thing never changed: I was very bad at physical activities. Before getting eye-glasses, I couldn’t see people around. When playing soccer, I couldn’t see the ball or tell if someone was on my team or the opponent’s. After wearing the precious pair of glasses, of course I stayed away from sports and physical games at all cost. I spent a lot of my free time staying at home and reading my dad’s old books. I became puny and whimsy, an easy target for bullying.
Even at home, I was constantly bullied by my elder brother who was strongly built. The worst thing is that there was no escape from him. There were countless of times I felt desperate and burnt with hatred and revenge, while he enjoyed a good laughter. Occasionally I went crazy and fought fiercely, even with a knife. And the circumstance remained unchanged until I got to middle school.
We led our lives into adulthood typical of a bully and a bullied. My brother only hangs out with his minions, creates so many unnecessary conflicts with people around him. He is short-tempered and bossy. He enjoys humiliating and micromanaging weaker people. Those around him are intimidated, scared and sick of him. Once he got a job as a manager; a few months later all of his subordinates quit, leaving him alone to do all the work (his manager was very happy because he paid less labor). His career is always hung on a thread.
The life of the bullied didn’t get much easier. I became silently aggressive, very alert of attacks and tried my best to safeguard myself. Normally I appear to be a happy, joyful person but I do accumulate stress in the process of avoiding conflicts. As it may happen, sometimes I explode and fight fiercely. I have trouble building moderate relationship and my network is always small with only closed friends.
Good fight and Bad fight
Because my brother constantly initiates small conflicts, people around usually avoid him before getting into big fights. On the contrary, from time to time I get engaged in massive battles. My brother would jump in a petty fight immediately, while I do a lot of calculation to make sure I have the advantage before committing to a war. Regardless of who will be the eventual winner, big battles are costly for both sides. That’s why I consciously avoid them as much as possible.
Not every battle worth fighting. How to determine that? Before marching into the battlefield, ask yourself: why do you want to do this? what do you want to get from the war? what if you lose? Write them down and sleep on it. The final decision depends heavily on your value system, on what you think matter most in life. I’m pretty pragmatic, most of the time I just want a good life for myself. If a battle doesn’t win or save me resource, fame, relationship or good time, I would skip it.
Don’t fight just because you want to restore justice in this inherently unfair world. If a theft with a knife or a gun wants your money, give it to her and move on (if she tries to rape you, that’s another story). Once upon a time, I witnessed a powerful, wicked woman conspicuously bullied a young, gentle lady and the people in the community kept silent, I got pissed off and raged a war. It lasted a couple of months. I declared defeat after causing enough damage to the other side (that’s what I usually do). The community was dissolved. Many relationships were broken. It wasn’t a good fight.
Don’t fight just to save your face. The fight will most likely hurt your reputation than improve it. A lot of people don’t have the gut to take side. They are proud of themselves for being neutral and condemn both sides. Sometimes if the insult is not too bad, be a man, suck it up and move on (this applies to women as well). That’s being said, once in a while it’s better to fight if everybody expects it. One of my friends, another bullied, always tries to avoid public debates at all cost, to the point that people think he has no balls.
Even when you think you should fight to defend yourself, look for peaceful alternatives. Yes, sometimes you must stand up straight with your shoulders back, as J. Peterson puts it. But, is it the right time to fight, or is there a better solution? My sister had a conflict with the neighbors last month, to the point that the neighbors’ gangster son threatened to kill them, to the point that my sister had to call police. Then my family were discussing how to defend her from that gangster. They considered to build a strong wall, bulky locks, security cameras, AI-assisted anti-theft technologies, etc. Those would cost them a few hundred dollars, roughly 2 months of her income. Even if they would invest into them, they still live in fear (or anxiety at least). My brother, as expected, offered to take revenge with his gang.
I then made a suggestion to them: “Why don’t you use that much money for gifting your neighbors? Say, every month, buy your neighbors something worth 50 dollars. I’m sure after a few months, they will stop hating you, but rather come to like you and try to pay back. You will save a lot of money, avoid trouble and live in peace and harmony.” They couldn’t find a counter-argument for a few days. Finally, my sister rejected my idea, saying that’s not her way of life, and built a wall. I could only wish her good luck.
The Art of Retreat
If you read analyses of real wars, the decisive winning factor is often not battles but resources. In social context, it means time and psychology (anxiety), sometimes money. If you can drive your opponent into spending much more resources than you do, then you are likely to win, or in my dirty game I usually declare defeat and end the war right there.
It is extremely tricky to retreat at the right time. Think about trading stocks, when is a good time to sell? Simply speaking, either when you’re losing too much (something terribly wrong with the company), or gaining enough (well, what is enough then?). But, emotionally, most of us don’t want to retreat when facing failure just to suffer regret and lose our face. Similarly, we don’t want to quit during a winning streak because of greed and arrogance. The same things happen to gamblers, what’s why they often lose money eventually. It is even harder in a conflict because you don’t know much about your opponent, so it’s difficult to define “win” and “lose”.
I’ve sadly witnessed many inexperienced fighters who were so committed to the fight that they eventually suffered great loss. They normally started pretty well, either because their opponent was weaker or was not as committed. Then they progressed, escalated and accelerated. The opponent was pressured, became desperate and started making unexpectedly crazy moves. The table turned around. The fight ended with disaster for both sides.
Can we really withdraw from the fight? Yes. Remember that it requires 2+ sides to make a conflict. (Although there are, but rarely, people who fight with phantom opponents.) If you don’t fight back, usually the fight will end there. Borrowing the idea of the master fighter Bruce Lee, be like water.
At the end of the day, all of these depend on how mindful you are of your actions. When you are in a conflict, ask yourself these two questions, everyday: Why do I fight and Is it a good time to stop?