It's easy to call someone a “Perpetrator”, but what is the fuel behind their actions?
“Ugh.. he’s such a pussy.. Look at him.. He is so weak..”
These were words I would hear the boys saying about each other at school when one of them would cry or chose not to fight back.
I went to a school in London where fights in the park were an everyday event. Where kids had learnt that they needed to fight for acceptance, fight to feel safe and a part of the tribe, fighting to stay alive.
One day on the bus on the way to school, I remember seeing “D” sitting in the middle row with his legs crossing over to the other side of the isle, so that you would need to step over him in order to get past. He was one of the boys who I was afraid of and kept an equal distance and closeness to him, close and far enough to feel as safe as possible.
An older man got on the bus and attempted to step over “D’s” legs so that he could take a seat. D stood up and started to say things to this man, the man did not reply and again moved towards an empty seat. “D” then proceeded to hit this man in the face 4 or 5 times. The man’s nose was bleeding and his glasses were broken on his face. The man got off the bus and the bus continued to drive towards our school.
On the bus “D” and his friends would play music at a volume that I found hard to bear. The kids at the back of the bus would play games and tell stories about each other.I felt so uncomfortable and afraid, waiting every second for the moment the bus would arrive at school. Sometimes I found it so unbearable I would sniff glue and paint thinners before getting on the bus so that I could zone out and numb the tension and fear I was feeling on my way to school.
What is the image that you have of “D” rite now? - I invite you to write a sentence down and keep it for later on in this article
I would come home and share some parts of my day with my Dad, sometimes I would tell him about the kids who would say things that hurt my feelings and Dad listened to me to and I felt heard as he also me to see the possible reasons behind their behaviours in order to see where these kids were coming from, to have compassion and understanding that the things they were saying and doing were not about me, but in fact about themselves, about self protection, about trying to find confidence, strength and safety whilst living in a world where those needs may not be so easy to find.
So why do I tell this story?
I tell this story because I want to bring compassion to all people who experience violence, both those who receive and those who act out. It is easy to put “D” in the role of PERPETRATOR and the man in the role of the VICTIM. Yet that would somehow be asking us to ignore all other information before and after that event.
Perhaps “D” is the “VICTIM” at home, and perhaps the man is a “PERPETRATOR” in other relationships in his life. These labels though, however we use them, they get us into trouble, because we immediately come up against a conflict of who’s good and who is bad, which person is evil and which is a saint, and the list goes on.
Where is the human being behind these labels and what is it behind their tragic actions or reactions that really drives them to behave in the ways that they do?
It is very easy to simply punish “D” and send him to juvenile court for grievous bodily harm, in order to protect society and teach him a lesson that his behaviours are not acceptable. However I worry that this could compound “D’s” behaviors, he may learn that he will never be seen, heard or understood and that he is not safe and will not belong in society unless he uses force in order to be the one who is above the harm, rather than receiving it. He may learn that prison is safer than the real world and maybe even the place where he “belongs”.
I would love for “D” to be held with compassion rather than punishment as I believe that compassion can lead to change.
When I say holding him with compassion I do not mean condoning his behaviour or giving him a pat on the back and saying “well I understand why you chose to hit the man, maybe you're holding some anger from your life.. and hope you don’t do that again”. I pray for an opportunity to meet him where he is at, speak to him eye to eye and listen to his story without judgment, with curiosity as to “what is behind his actions” and offering him a space to be heard, with the hope that we can slowly begin to walk together in finding different choices to support everyone's needs equally. This is not so simple, as “D” has probably learnt that speaking about his emotions with others is “weak” and that he will lose his status and position which brings him safety. I long for systems and spaces where kids like “D” still feel safe to express themselves, feel seen and heard and have a sense of belonging and purpose in their lives.
I once worked on an after school art project with teenegers who had been held in detention centers or were being expelled from school. We made art and sculptures together and I saw life in their faces, I heard joy in their voices and they were engaged, excited and coming back for more each day. These spaces do exist of course and yet we as a society are still so quick to judge, blame and label people like “D” who act out in such tragic ways in order to meet their needs.
Instead of trying to resolve the situation with “D” I would like to bring our attention to what “D” might have been going through when he chose to hit the man on the bus, in order to start shifting from the label of PERPETRATOR (knowing that we do not have D with us, so I am making a guess in order to demonstrate compassion for him).
I imagine that when D put his leg out across the aisle, he may have been feeling confident and possibly afraid at the same time. I imagine that he was using his “confidence” as a strategy to meet his needs for safety, being seen and respected. I imagine that these needs are not being met in other areas of his life and that he found this tragic expression of his needs to be the only way that works for him with the tools that he has in front of him.
I also imagine that he believed that he had a lot to lose i.e. if he chose to move his leg so that the man could sit down, that he would have lost his status which brings him safety, respect and power, perhaps he even imagined that his friends were expecting him to behave in this way and that they would abandon him if he made a choice that did not fit the image he had created for himself and for their acceptance and approval of him.
After seeing “D” with compassion, what is your image of him now, compared to the start of this article?
I can imagine there to be a real array of thoughts and feelings, perhaps pity, or sadness, maybe still a lot of anger or even annoyance at what I am saying, maybe you really feel compassion for “D” or perhaps you would really like to move your attention towards the man and how he was feeling and have more compassion for him as he bleeds from “D’s” actions? All your reactions are welcome and pointing towards your own feelings and needs and so I invite you to take a pen and paper and start writing about how you feel, what is it that you are needing in this moment?
For this article I wanted to focus the attention on the ACTOR (perpetrator) rather than the RECEIVER(victim) as it is easier to have compassion for those who receive these acts of violence.
I imagine that the man was shocked, hurt and afraid of, perhaps also wanting safety and respect, and maybe also a deep longing for the impact of this boy's actions on him, to be heard and seen. It is equally easy for the RECEIVER to lose power in this instance as all of the attention can be put on judging and labeling the actions and the wrongness of the ACTOR rather than fully listening to the personal and internal experience of the RECEIVER and brining full compassion and presence to their experience so that the impact of the ACTORS actions are fully heard.
I still feel lost as I write this article, mourning the complexity of growing up in a world where we are judged from the moment we are born and labeled as girl or boy, cute or ugly, well quite or a screamer. Immediately we are checking if we are accepted, if we belong, if we are safe.
We pass on our own fears and understandings of the world to our children, and they to theirs and so it is very easy to be stuck in this paradigm of blame, judgment and punishment, perhaps more comfortable as our entire culture is built around success and failure.
And yet I do believe in a new paradigm, one where we see the humanity behind our actions, where we are curious about what we all want in this life and where we work together to create systems and find solutions that really care for all needs as equals.
I leave you with a link to this project that inspires me, of bringing NVC to prisons in the US.
If you have liked this article please do share it, comment on it or write to me. I so enjoy hearing your feedback and being in conversation with you about these topics together.