Don’t just turn the other cheek

I turned around to face him. He can’t have been older than 17. Without saying a word I looked him squarely in the eyes, as though to say, “Why do this? Surely you know that punching me in the back of the head, without any provocation, is wrong?”. I then slowly turned back around to face the opposite direction, ready to disembark at the train station we were pulling into.

BAM! I felt the exploding and reverberating sensation of another well placed punch to the back of my head. I didn’t move. BAM! BAM! More punches followed. There were around ten teenage boys in the group, and it seemed like they were all taking turns punching the back of my head. Hard. I knew that if I turned around and fought them there was a risk of a knife being pulled. My father and my mother were sitting nearby on the other side of the carriage. So a fight would necessarily mean that my father would come to defend me. What if he got hurt? I stayed put. The thought processes that happen in the flicker of a second.

As the train pulled into the station, a nearby passenger noticed what was happening and called out in indignation for them to stop. But the train doors opened promptly and the teenagers fled into the night.

I was around 23 at the time. We were on the train from Stansted Airport, on the way back from Dublin visiting my sister’s family. The same night, we were heading to our Wales holiday house. I had been sitting on the train with my computer open, doing some work, when the group of teenage boys boarded the train. There was one girl in the group. They had gathered around the table that was parallel to me, all of their attention focused on the girl. “We gonna come round party at your house”, and other suggestions flew across the table. The girl looked uncomfortable. I glanced across and caught the eye of one of the lead boys, gave him a look that said “stop pestering the girl”. “Whatcha lookin’ at?!” he challenged me. I resisted response and turned my glance back to my work. At the next stop, the girl got off. The boys stayed on the train. I was relieved for her.

We began to approach Tottenham Hale, where my parents and I were to disembark. I closed my computer, gathered my things, got up and stood in the aisle waiting to arrive at the station. My back was to the teenagers. That’s when the first punch landed on the back of my head. Of course, the police were called and they took details. Nobody was caught. I think they said the cameras were not working.

But then I began wondering about the kind of mindset that would result in a group of teenagers launching a savage attack in this way. How do they see their peers? How do they see the rest of society? What kinds of aspirations do they have? It seemed to me their outlook must be pretty grim and that others in society were – to them – somehow the enemy. Why would that be?

These questions played on my mind and contributed to later decisions to study Sociology with Politics. I wanted to understand what makes communities stick together and what makes them fall apart. To get some experience on the ground I also started working in the community sector e.g. mentoring parents of disadvantaged families and helping staff at local companies to volunteer to run projects with schools in disadvantaged districts of Westminster.

At my job in Westminster, I began initial work to set up a network of school based TV stations where young people who were disaffected could lead in exploring the challenges they are experiencing together with local decision-makers and other relevant people in the community. The aim would be for the young people themselves to lead the way in identifying issues they feel are holding them back, and to develop and implement solutions. Unfortunately, before we could implement any plans, the youth volunteering scheme we were running at the time collapsed after government funding was pulled. Instead, I experimented with this idea at University with project SIBE, and this helped pave the way to the development of engage.re where a key aim is to enable grassroots to directly contribute towards problem solving in the community.

Whilst the punches were painful and made me a dizzy, the return on investment was immense. I’m pretty sure a much higher return than that received by those who do professional boxing for a living. Talking to a close friend the other day, I realised that the experience had taught me something incredibly invaluable. We should not just ‘turn the other cheek’, but that we should be ready to look the person in the eye and try to understand what has been said; even if the person saying or expressing the thing of significance had, for whatever reason, no constructive means to do so.

I find this approach important in every situation of conflict – however severe, even if extraordinarily violent. Our enemies are only those who by the fate of time enter into our lives in a way that the colliding paradigms demonstrate a deficit that, when met through the right investments, can result in a return that was only possible through those two paradigms being synthesised.

Don’t just turn the other cheek